MIAMI – As the Los Angeles Dodgers’ lead continues to grow in the National League West, the club has yet another reason to stand tall as Clayton Kershaw will return to the mound Friday night against the Miami Marlins.
Life without Kershaw was supposed to spell doom for a Dodgers club that had an inconsistent offense, a bullpen with only one set role and a starting staff that often was shaky on the days its ace was not taking the ball. The Dodgers were falling out of contention in late June WITH Kershaw. It wasn’t expected to look pretty without him.
When Kershaw broke out to what appeared to be a historic start to the season, the Dodgers’ identity consisted mostly of their three-time Cy Young Award winner, with a little bit of Corey Seager, a sprinkle of Kenley Jansen and the question whether Chase Utley would hold up physically under a heavy workload. Seager and Trayce Thompson were the offense’s motor.
Then up cropped the worst-case scenario. Kershaw’s back conked out after a June 26 start, and the Dodgers were somehow supposed to get the speedboat ashore without a motor.
Fortunes were not supposed to get better. They did.
The bullpen, already starting to turn a corner, found sustained success. The offense received a huge jolt first from Justin Turner, then Howie Kendrick. Yasmani Grandal, Adrian Gonzalez and Joc Pederson followed soon after. Without the best range, the defense managed to catch what was hit at it. The club did not give away games.
The formula has pretty much continued since, with a few setbacks here and there — but mostly, the Dodgers have managed to keep on winning. They are 14 games over .500 (38-24) without Kershaw. They were five games over (41-36) with him.
So as Kershaw gets set to pitch opposite the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez on Friday, he rejoins a far more complete team, and one that will allow him to work his way slowly into the mix. When Kershaw was 11-2 after 16 starts and had 145 strikeouts to nine walks, who would have thought it would be anybody but him to light the way through the dark tunnel?
So what can be expected from Kershaw over the final three-plus weeks of the regular season?
Get ready for strict control measures during Kershaw’s first outing in 2½ months. Kershaw won’t like the concept that he won’t have the chance to go the distance, but he already has said that he understands the need to take precautions. A six-inning maximum is expected, with the idea that a five-inning start is probably more likely. Kershaw did not have an start under six innings this season and had only three last year, with one coming on his last outing of the year when he left the game after eclipsing the 300-strikeout mark. And what is possible from Kershaw after a long layoff? For his first start off the disabled list in 2014, after missing more than a month, he did not allow a run over seven innings with nine strikeouts.
How can anything top the hype of Kershaw’s first start in 75 days? Put him in Yankee Stadium for an early-evening start five days later and watch the hype machine explode. It still is not known if Kershaw will return to the mound five days from Friday, or if the team will take it slower with his return, but if he does come back on regular rest, the Dodgers will be playing the finale of a three-game interleague series against the Yankees. Kershaw has never pitched in the Yankees’ home park. Don’t be surprised if it happens. Expect an increase of 10-15 pitches from his previous outing.
Putting Kershaw on a schedule to start ever fifth day would mean the third outing of his comeback makes him the pitcher for the Sept. 19 opener of a three-game home series against the Giants. It could also be another Kershaw-Madison Bumgarner matchup. Considering that Kershaw had a simulated game and a minor-league outing before his return, and then pitched in two regular games, his third start would essentially be the equivalent of his final spring training start as he builds himself into a regular workload.
Assuming everything stays on schedule, Kershaw is lined up to make his final regular-season start at San Francisco during the final series of the season. It will also be the final series in the Hall of Fame broadcasting career of Vin Scully, and hearing him call one more Kershaw outing would be something to record and save for posterity. A healthy Kershaw might be under no restrictions at this point, but if the division already is clinched, it could be a shorter outing to point him toward a division series opener on Oct. 7.
If the season ended today, the Dodgers would open the NLDS at Washington, and a healthy Kershaw will be pointed toward Game 1. Kershaw is 10-2 with a 2.02 ERA in 14 appearances (13 starts) against the Nationals. Where Kershaw has been used on short rest in past division series, the assumption this time around is that the Dodgers would use a four-man rotation for the five-game series and have Kershaw pitch in Games 1 and 5, if necessary.
Colorado Rockies. Kershaw should be close to a 100-pitch-per-game pitcher at this point, although it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Dodgers play it safe with this number. If a home start against the Rockies in a Kershaw DL season sounds familiar, it should. Kershaw fired his only no-hitter against Colorado nine starts after returning from the DL in 2014.