PHOENIX (AP) — Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers went all the way to the last day of the regular season, won a whopping 106 games, and still lost the NL West title to the San Francisco Giants.
This time, Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers left no doubt.
Kershaw pitched seven dominant innings and the Dodgers won the NL West for the ninth time in 10 seasons, blanking the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-0 Tuesday night.
The Dodgers walked from the dugout when it was over to congratulate each other, much like they did after most of their wins in a runaway season, and posed for a team photo on the field.
Then, it was back to the clubhouse at Chase Field for a spirited, spraying celebration. Clearly, the near-miss last year, beaten by the Giants by a game for the division title, was on their minds.
“We weren’t defending National League West champions. That was first on our list,” manager Dave Roberts said.
“It’s something we should enjoy and be proud of, and get back to work (Wednesday), but it’s quite the accomplishment,” he said.
Freddie Freeman, Max Muncy and Joey Gallo homered as the Dodgers boosted the best record in the majors to 98-43. They lead second-place San Diego by a whopping 20 1/2 games.
Roberts’ team will have plenty of time to get set for its 10th straight year in the postseason. The Dodgers’ first playoff game is almost a month away, on Oct. 11.
A crowd of 21,143, mostly clad in Dodger blue, watched the clincher. It’s the Dodgers’ 20th NL West crown since the majors split into divisions in 1969.
Kershaw (8-3) was sharp throughout, allowing just two singles and one walk while striking out five. He threw just 82 pitches, 55 for strikes. He lowered his season ERA to 2.44.
Kershaw missed three weeks with a back issue that has plagued him through the second half of his decorated career. Since then, he has started three times, allowing just three runs in 18 innings with 19 strikeouts.
“That three-week kind of hiatus gave him a chance to reset, and just to know that even tonight, there was some more in there. He’ll make three or four more starts and be ready for the postseason,” Roberts said.
Caleb Ferguson and Craig Kimbrel finished the combined three-hit shutout.
Gallo’s home run, his 17th, cleared the center-field wall and gave the Dodgers a 2-0 lead in the second. The homer was measured at 438 feet. Muncy led off the inning with a single off Merrill Kelly — literally— as it bounced off the pitcher to the vacated left side of the infield.
Freeman led off the third inning with his 20th homer, a 442-foot drive to right-center into the swimming pool area.
Last year, the Dodgers beat the Giants in the NL Division Series, but lost to Freeman and the eventual champion Atlanta Braves in the NLCS.
Freeman saw how much more difficult it was for his current teammates to win with very little rest last October. He’s played in every game this year and refused to consider clinching too early as a problem.
“There is no downside,” Freeman said. “You come to the yard and expect to win every single day. If you don’t have that expectation, I don’t know what you’re doing as a professional athlete.”
Mookie Betts agreed.
“You just keep playing,” the All-Star right fielder said. “It’s not like we’re going to start throwing away at-bats or pitches. We just continue to play the same game.”
Muncy’s homer, also his 20th, came against Taylor Widener in the seventh.
Kelly (12-6) lasted five innings, losing for the first time in 14 starts. He gave up five hits, walked five and struck out eight. He threw 96 pitches — 30 in the long second inning and 29 more in the third.
It was the second straight shutout by the Dodgers in Arizona. Tyler Anderson and two relievers handled the Diamondbacks 6-0 on Monday.
GOT THEIR NUMBER
After Tuesday’s win, the Dodgers are 27-5 against Arizona in the last two seasons.
Betts, back in his usual spot in right field, made a sliding catch in the corner after a long run to take an extra-base hit from Jake McCarthy in the seventh inning. Betts started at second base on Monday.
In the eighth, McCarthy returned the favor, grabbing Betts’ drive down the line in foul territory.
Diamondbacks 1B Christian Walker entered Tuesday with a .318 average against Kershaw with four home runs in 22 at-bats, but he struck out twice and grounded out against the All-Star lefty.
BACK IN TIME
The Dodgers activated RHP Tommy Kahnle from the 60-day injured list on Tuesday and designated RHP Heath Hembree for assignment.
Kahnle, 33, missed three months with forearm inflammation. He has pitched just four games for the Dodgers this season but has postseason experience with the New York Yankees in 2017 and ’19.
“To get a guy who’s pitched in high leverage, pitched in big games, to have him back is huge,” Roberts said. “The timing is good. He hasn’t pitched a whole lot this season, so having a few weeks to get him re-acclimated is a good thing.”
Roberts said 2B Gavin Lux (back), sidelined since Sept. 1, will have a simulated game Wednesday. Roberts said he’s close to returning.
RHP Michael Grove (4.82) makes his third start of the season for the Dodgers against Arizona RHP Zach Davies (2-4, 4.09) Wednesday in the finale of the three-game series at Chase Field.
More AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports