In his first major league start in two and a half months, Clayton Kershaw did not dazzle. Paired with the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez in what otherwise would have been one of the season’s top marquee matchups, the ace lefty threw an unspectacular three innings on Friday night, but he did set himself up to help the Dodgers in their attempt to sock away their fourth straight NL West title and play deep into October.
Kershaw, who had last pitched against the Pirates on June 26, went on the disabled list for just the second time in his career due to a herniated disc in his back. At the time he went down, the 28-year-old southpaw was in the midst of arguably the best season of a career, leading the NL in just about every meaningful pitching category: ERA (1.79), ERA+ (218), FIP (1.67), innings (121), strikeouts (145), walk rate (0.7 per nine), strikeout-to-walk ratio (16.1) and WAR (4.7). Though he’s now short of qualifying for the ERA title and other rate-stat leads due to his lack of innings, he entered Friday still tied with Noah Syndergaard for the league's second-highest WAR, trailing only Max Scherzer (5.7). In the absence of any other NL pitcher dominating so many statistical categories, he still has a reasonable case to add a fourth Cy Young.
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His award-winning form wasn't often in evidence on Friday at Marlins Park. Kershaw allowed five hits from among the 14 Marlins hitters he faced, four of them with two strikes. On his sixth pitch of the evening, he hung a 2–1 slider to J.T. Realmuto, who clubbed it an estimated 385 feet for a solo homer. With one out in the second-inning, Jeff Francoeur—whose major league career persists thanks to his ability to hit lefties—won a seven-pitch battle by hitting a 94 mph inside fastball down the third base line for a double, then came around to score when Chris Johnson connected with an 0–2 hanging curveball for a single up the middle. A two-out single by Fernandez pushed Kershaw’s pitch count in the inning to 29, after 14 in the first.
The only hit Kershaw allowed in the third was an infield single to Christian Yelich, fielded by the pitcher before spinning to unleash a futile, dribbling throw in the general direction of first base, but he again labored, needing 23 pitches to complete the frame. That pushed his pitch count to 66 pitches, and while he no doubt would have preferred to stick around longer, his night was done, his pitch count more or less maxed out according to the current protocol. In his lone rehab start, for the team's High-A Rancho Cucamonga affiliate on Sept. 3, he had thrown 34 pitches in three efficient innings and then another 16 in the bullpen to bring his count to an even 50. Teams generally build pitchers' counts up 15 to 20 pitches at a time, so expectations for Kershaw's next start—Wednesday afternoon in the Bronx against the Yankees—should be in the 80–85 pitch range.
Though he departed trailing 2–0 in a game that the Dodgers lost 4–1, Friday's start wasn't without its positives. Via Brooks Baseball, Kershaw averaged 94.5 mph with his four-seam fastball, higher than his season average of 93.7 mph. He located the pitch well, throwing 23 of 31 fastballs for strikes, with five swings and misses. He did get six swings and misses and 19 strikes from among his 25 sliders, but a few were poorly located, and likewise from among his 10 curves, of which just four were strikes. In all, he got first-pitch strikes against 11 of the 14 hitters he faced, and struck out five without walking anyone. When he rung up Marcell Ozuna for his final strikeout of the night, he became the first pitcher in major league history to reach 150 strikeouts with fewer than 10 walks (he has nine so far).
Beyond his surviving Friday night's outing, the big question is how Kershaw will feel Saturday as he recovers and builds towards not only Wednesday’s start but also the three more beyond that prior to the end of the regular season. He returns to a playoff race that looks vastly different than when he went down. Without him, the Dodgers improbably posted the league's second-best record, going 38–24 while swinging the NL West race by 13 games, from eight behind the Giants (who went 25–37 in the interim, including 17–32 since the All-Star break) to five ahead. Via the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds, the Dodgers entered Friday with a 99.6% chance at making the playoffs, including a 92.5% chance of winning the division.
Pitching-wise, Los Angeles largely did it with mirrors. In those 62 games without their ace, their rotation wobbled its way to a 4.61 ERA and 4.01 FIP while averaging just 4.9 innings per start, with a mere 19 quality starts; though they struck out 8.8 per nine, they allowed 1.2 homers and 3.2 walks per nine respectively. No fewer than 12 different starters took the ball for manager Dave Roberts during that span, with Kenta Maeda the only constant. While he managed a respectable 3.80 ERA while whiffing 9.9 per nine, he averaged just 5.5 innings per start, with four quality starts out of 12.
Rookies Julio Urias, Ross Stripling, Brock Stewart and Jose DeLeon accounted for 18 starts, just three of them quality starts; Urias, a teenager until Aug. 20, was brilliant (3.02 ERA, 8.8 K/9), while the other two were intermittently serviceable. Veterans Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu, all of whom began the season on the disabled list and were still there when Kershaw went down, returned to action but made just 11 starts between them, only two of which lasted at least five innings; all wound up sidelined again. Deadline acquisition Rich Hill pitched brilliantly, albeit while making just two starts due to recurrent blisters. Bud Norris, acquired from the Braves, was blitzed for a 5.95 ERA in nine starts, just two of them quality. Scott Kazmir the only other pitcher to make at least 10 starts in Kershaw's absence, hit the disabled list due to inflammation in his neck after his performance deteriorated, and suffered a setback in his rehab outing on Wednesday, threatening his availability for the remainder of the season.
The bullpen and offense both helped to pick up the slack. In Kershaw’s absence, the 'pen as a whole pitched to a 3.59 ERA with 9.9 strikeouts per nine, numbers that look even better excluding the exiled Casey Fein and Chris Hatcher. For the whole season, the unit owns the league's lowest ERA (3.34), second-lowest FIP (3.58) and third-highest strikeout rate (9.4 per nine), with Kenley Jansen typically brilliant, Joe Blanton (!) emerging as a quality setup man, and unknown lefties Adam Liberatore and Grant Dayton proving dominant for stretches.
The offense, which got by on a modest 4.14 runs per game before Kershaw went down, boosted its output to 4.98 runs per game, with Corey Seager (.345/.407/.546), Adrian Gonzalez (.328/.381/.546 with 11 homers), Justin Turner (.291/.349/.559 with 14 homers) and Yasmani Grandal (.276/.388/.629 with 18 homers) doing the heavy lifting, rookie Andrew Toles (.379/.440/.652) providing a 2013-model Yasiel Puig-type impact in limited doses, and even Puig (.309/.414/.494) getting better results at the plate after returning first from a hamstring injury and then a month-long banishment to the minors that probably foreshadows his exit from Los Angeles.
In addition to Kershaw, the Dodgers will be bolstered by the return of Andre Ethier, who has missed the entire season save for a rehab assignment after fracturing his right tibia with a foul ball back in March. How the rotation will shake out beyond Kershaw, Maeda and Hill is anyone’s guess, particularly given the number of rookies with workload concerns. All Roberts and company do know is that at long last, they have their ace back.