WASHINGTON -- When Dodgers manager Don Mattingly heard the dull thwack-thwack-thwack of a baseball being thrown against the cinder block wall outside his office on Tuesday afternoon, it was more than music to his ears. It was a baseball symphony.
That's one of the things ace left-hander Clayton Kershaw does on days he pitches. It was a sound Mattingly hadn't heard for 45 days, while the two-time Cy Young Award winner and three-time earned run average leader recovered from a strained muscle near his shoulder.
And while Mattingly obviously never forgot how much Kershaw meant to the team, he also admitted that seeing him come back with seven shutout innings in an 8-3 win Tuesday night at Nationals Park reinforced the point.
"It's nice to have him back," the Dodgers manager said. "He shows you right away what you've been missing. He's a guy who brings that to the table every five days. It's a little reminder of who he is and what he brings."
The Dodgers are now 19-15. Not bad, but not where they'd hoped to be, either. They hope that getting Kershaw back can be a catalyst.
"It's good to be back," Kershaw said. "I missed it, being around the guys. Just pitching in the big leagues. It's a special thing to do and I try not to take it for granted. It felt like a long time. You get something taken away from you and you realize how much you miss it.
"That's the first time I've ever really missed any time. You don't want to take this game for granted. Sometimes you take your health for granted when you've been healthy. I'm going to try not to do that."
Said Nationals manager Matt Williams: "He doesn't win all those awards by being an average pitcher. He's one of the best in the game."
Added Dodgers shortstop Hanley Ramirez: "He's a competitor. He's always going to be well-prepared, physically and mentally and in every aspect of the game. It just shows what a talent he is, to be able to miss that time, come back ahead of schedule and compete that well."
It didn't take long for Kershaw to demonstrate that he wasn't going to skip a beat, even though he made just two rehab starts and went just five innings in each of them. In the bottom of the first, he went into his familiar wind-up, with the slight hesitation in the middle, and delivered a 93-mph fastball to Nationals leadoff hitter Denard Span. Home-plate umpire Paul Nauert called it a strike. And, with that, it was game on.
He needed just 12 pitches to get through the first, 11 of them strikes. From watching him throw, it would have been impossible to tell that these were the first pitches he'd thrown in a big league game since his Opening Day start against the D-backs in Sydney, Australia, on March 22. A week later, he was placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career.
On Tuesday night, Kershaw scattered nine hits, struck out nine and didn't walk a batter. He threw 89 pitches, 68 for strikes.
The Dodgers will continue to monitor him, but not because he was on the DL.
"We're still going to watch him," Mattingly said. "We watched him last year [when his 1.83 earned run average was the lowest for a National League starter since Greg Maddux's 1.63 in 1995] and we're still going to do that. Not just him, but all our guys."
Like all managers, Mattingly doesn't adhere strictly to pitch counts. He pays attention to how hard a pitcher has to work to get through an inning.
"There are days you can tell it's nice and easy for him," Mattingly said. "There are other days it's just a fight. Those fight days are the ones that wear you down, that take a toll."
Kershaw breezed through the first three innings before Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon started the fourth with a base hit and right fielder Jayson Werth followed with a single deep into the hole at shortstop that left runners on first and second with nobody out.
Similarly, Kershaw gave up three straight singles -- to Rendon, Werth and LaRoche -- to begin the sixth. But he immediately picked Rendon off and then struck out Hairston and Desmond again to end the inning.
"I think the intensity is probably the same," Kershaw said. "With guys on base there's not as much margin for error. You don't want to give up any runs so, subconsciously, you probably bear down a little bit more."
He also helped himself break a scoreless tie in the top of the sixth. He led off by hitting a chopper back to the mound that Nats pitcher Blake Treinen couldn't pick up cleanly. Because he ran hard to first, he beat the throw. The Dodgers went on to score three unearned runs.
"I just like to play the game the right way," Kershaw said. "It doesn't matter if you're a pitcher or not. Older guys it probably doesn't feel to run like that, but I feel all right doing it. I respect it when I see other guys doing it, so I try to do it as well."
The Dodgers didn't forget how good Kershaw is or how much he means to them. But they were happy to be reminded anyway.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.