Kershaw returning to mound for Dodgers, and none too soon
MAY 06, 2014 3:08a ET
Clayton Kershaw has arrived, right on time.
The Los Angeles Dodgers aren't floundering in the National League West. They aren't desperate for an in-season revival, like the one Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig inspired last year. But they aren't themselves yet, either. So they're eager to reacquire the sense of identity — and, more than often, the seven sublime innings — that No. 22 brings to the mound.
Tuesday against the Washington Nationals, Kershaw will make his first meaningful appearance on American soil since a defeat in Game 6 of last year's National League Championship Series. The Dodgers' best left-hander since Sandy Koufax started their season opener in Australia more than six weeks ago, but landed on the disabled list soon afterward with a strained teres major muscle behind his pitching shoulder.
In his absence, the Dodgers are off to an 18-15 start. Manager Don Mattingly said Monday his team is playing "OK." He said he's not disappointed . . . but he's not happy, either.
“We feel like we're better than this," he said, without an ounce of conceit. No length of tenure in Yankee pinstripes or Dodger blue has changed the fact that Donnie Baseball is a matter-of-fact Midwesterner from Evansville, Ind. At $230 million, give or take, the Dodgers have the largest payroll in baseball. They're supposed to be better than this. And he knows it.
Since we've already started the Yankees-Dodgers comparisons, we might as well continue with another: The 2014 Dodgers, with their cadre of superstars, have inherited some — but not all — of the October inevitability the Yankees long possessed. There were years when the Yankees looked mediocre in April and May, but you knew they'd find a way to reach the playoffs. These Dodgers are a little like that — especially with Kershaw back, and starting catcher A.J. Ellis likely to follow within the next couple weeks — even if there are no guarantees in a competitive division.
Zack Greinke saw his bid for a 6-0 start washed away Monday — thanks to Anthony Rendon's first-inning home run and an interminable rain delay — but he hasn't been this good this early in the season since his Cy Young Award campaign five years ago. Dan Haren (4-0, 2.39 ERA, six starts) has learned how to excel with diminished velocity, Josh Beckett is showing he isn't finished, and Hyun-Jin Ryu appears — for now — to have avoided a major shoulder injury, even if he'll miss at least the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, general manager Ned Colletti made the right decision by holding onto his outfield surplus during the offseason. It remains possible that Andre Ethier will be traded in the next 10 months. For now, they need him — particularly with Puig out of the lineup.
The four-outfielder rotation — five, when counting the valuable Scott Van Slyke — has allowed Mattingly to play Ethier almost exclusively against right-handed pitching. (Ethier has started once against a lefty since the Australian opener.) Mattingly has found meaningful (if not completely satisfying) playing time for all four; each ranks among the top eight Dodgers in plate appearances this season. So, in that sense, this is a National League team with four regular outfielders.
“Show up that day, ready to play, see if your name's in the lineup, get ready for that game, and do what you can," Ethier said Monday, when I asked how he is handling the intermittent at-bats. "Everyone knows the ideal situation, but this is the situation we're faced with . . . It's going out there, knowing this is the task we have. If everyone does their job, we'll be rewarded at the end. That's the biggest thing.
"Donnie's laid it (out) that this is the way it's going to be, for right now. We're going to put out the best lineup we can, that day, barring injuries, against that pitcher. I think everyone in this room is old enough, wise enough, to know you don't get this many opportunities to play with teams this talented, that can make a run."
As an outfield group, though, they haven't been very productive. Yet. Puig is the only one of the four with an OPS over .800. Matt Kemp has shown signs that his power will return, with 13 extra-base hits in his first 26 games. The track records of Ethier and Carl Crawford suggest they will perform better than they have to date, and the same can be said for Ramirez, who's having a good-but-not-great contract year (.757 OPS).
Kershaw, in the first year of the richest pitching contract ever, isn't here to save the offense. And he can't make the rival Giants and suddenly legitimate Rockies go away. But the major league ERA champion — three years running — impacts far more than the game he pitches. Beginning Tuesday night, the Dodgers will remember what it's like to feel invincible. They need the confidence boost: The bullpen had to throw six innings in relief of Greinke on Monday, after a 3-hour, 17-minute rain delay ended his night much earlier than expected. The Dodgers didn't make the last out until 1:21 a.m. Tuesday. They'll be tired. Presumably, their ace won't be.
"First time out," Mattingly said with a smile, "he won't go over 130 (pitches)."