MIAMI — The Los Angeles Dodgers lost a game Friday, but they won the peace of mind they have been searching for since late June.
Clayton Kershaw is back from his bad back, giving the Dodgers the rare opportunity to feel somewhat whole again. That is no easy task, considering the club has put a major league record-tying 27 different players on the disabled list this season.
The Dodgers fell 4-1 to the Miami Marlins, the fifth time in five tries they have lost to former Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, but this night was about seeing Kershaw pitch again.
“A little bit of it, you have to take the long view and understand this was a win for him and for us, and we will continue to build him up and look toward that [next] start in New York,” manager Dave Roberts said.
Kershaw was the latest of the Dodgers’ injured pitchers to return, and although he lasted only three innings, giving up two runs and five hits, Friday’s bumpy outing in South Florida was the start to the process of getting the club’s three-time Cy Young Award winner up to speed again. That’s not exactly how he was looking at it though.
“I’m thankful that I got to come back; that’s definite,” Kershaw said. “[Physical therapist] Steve [Smith] and [strength and conditioning coach Brandon McDaniel] have been with me nonstop to get me back, and a lot of people put in a lot of work to help me get back. I understand that from that standpoint and I’m thankful for that.
“But at the same time, I’m out there to win. I’m out there to get guys out very consistently and I didn’t do that tonight.”
The dream was that Kershaw would take the mound and immediately return to his past glory, but the reality was that his pitch count was on a strict limit, even if the Dodgers weren’t saying what that limit was.
“Honestly, I think that he is as human as we all are,” Roberts said. “I think where we’re at as a club, we’re in a good spot. And so, I think yeah, if he would have been three-, four-inning scoreless, six [strikeouts], that would have been great. But you still have to look a little bit deeper than the numbers.”
As it turns out, the 66 pitches Kershaw threw were enough for now. Another opportunity awaits Wednesday evening at Yankee Stadium, and that is sure to draw about as much attention as this one did.
Kershaw last pitched in a game on June 26, looking somewhat out of sorts, at least when compared to the pitcher that had been on a historically dominating run to start the season. He gave up four runs and nine hits over six innings of a nationally televised affair at Pittsburgh, losing for only the second time in 16 starts.
The next day he started getting treatment for a sore lower back, and after one setback during his recovery, he missed 2½ months. Yet the Dodgers not only survived his absence, they thrived despite the loss of their best pitcher. They went 38-24 without their Opening Day starter and turned an eight-game deficit in the division into a five-game lead.
“It was good to see him out there, obviously,” veteran Adrian Gonzalez said. “The main thing is that he came out of this healthy. We knew he was on a pitch limit and we knew that he would be not in top shape. He’s only had one start in a few months and those things don’t happen overnight. It was just great to see him out there. He told me he feels good.”
Despite the team’s success without their ace, the Dodgers’ master plan always had Kershaw leading the charge toward the postseason. That plan won’t change now as the Dodgers will continue to have Kershaw build up his pitch count all while facing major league hitters.
Kershaw said afterward that he had no doubt he would reach the 100-pitch mark in the four regular-season starts he has remaining. But those starts will not be easy. Not only did Kershaw make his comeback Friday opposite the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez, his next start comes at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday.
The third start of his return is expected to come at home, probably Sept. 19 against the San Francisco Giants. It is possible that matchup would be against Giants ace Madison Bumgarner.
After a likely outing against the Colorado Rockies, Kershaw appears to be lined up for the season-ending three-game series at San Francisco.
With anybody else except Kershaw, the Dodgers might not have laid out such an imposing schedule. Kershaw would have it no other way. Asked if his flaws Friday are fixable, he replied: “They better be.”
“I was throwing strikes,” Kershaw said. “They just weren’t quality strikes. Get two strikes on a guy, I wasn’t able to finish him off quickly. They had long at-bats. Credit to them, they did well. But I think more than anything I wasn’t able to produce the quality strikes tonight consistently.”
Most important, the Kershaw competitive spirit was there. He knew the Dodgers were not going to ride him hard Friday, yet he kept his vision locked on Roberts when he was removed after three innings.
The time frame for his comeback might be comparable to the second week of spring training. Maybe the third. But you knew Kershaw would never look at it that way.
So yes, the Dodgers can consider some part of Friday night a victory. And yes, they can feel better about having their ace in uniform again. But it was not all triumphant.
“No, it’s not spring training for anybody else, so it’s not for me either,” Kershaw said. “We’ve got to beat the Giants. We’ve got to win this division. I’m thankful for what the guys did while I was out. They played unbelievable. They’re still playing unbelievable. I just want to be a part of that and want to help that. Tonight I didn’t really help, so I need to do that pretty soon.”