Thursday September 15th, 2016

NEW YORK — Dodgers manager Dave Roberts wrestled with the choice to pull rookie righthander Ross Stripling, two years removed from Tommy John surgery, after 7 1/3 no-hit innings in April. He agonized over his decision to end the perfect game bid of lefty Rich Hill, who had already missed a month with blisters, after seven earlier this week. But allowing Clayton Kershaw, the face of the franchise, the best pitcher on the planet, who had been activated on Friday following 74 days on the disabled list recovering from a herniated disk, to return from a combined hour in rain delays and complete five innings?

“I felt comfortable with it,” Roberts said after the game. “I’ll sleep okay. Certain times, you gotta trust the player.”

If the 48-minute rain delay had lasted another 10, if Kershaw hadn’t demonstrated to the staff that he was warm and loose, if the simulated inning they made him throw in the Yankee Stadium batting cages during the break hadn’t gone well, his night might have ended. (The first delay, in the third inning, lasted only 12 minutes, barely long enough to un- and re-roll the tarp.) But the ace was adamant he was prepared to go back out, and in the end, the team’s desire to get his pitch count up—he’d only thrown 66 through three innings in Miami last week—and let him return to game intensity won out, and the results were good. Kershaw threw 64 pitches over five shutout frames, plus the 16 in the bowels of Yankee Stadium to give him 80 on the night. He met six of his first nine batters with first-pitch strikes, striking out five without allowing a walk. He didn’t give up his only hit until the fifth. His velocity sat easily at 93 mph, and hit 94 after the delay. He even worked his way out of a jam in the fifth when an error, single and sacrifice bunt left him with men on second and third with one out. He struck out the next two hitters swinging, punctuating his outing with a first pump and roar.

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Los Angeles broke a scoreless tie in the ninth inning to beat New York 2–0, but Kershaw’s recovery was on everyone’s mind.

“Getting him back and closer to who he is and what he can do gives us a formidable 1-2-3 punch,” said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt of Kershaw, Hill and righty Kenta Maeda. “As much of a struggle as it was, it worked out as well as it could have.”

Roberts had referred to the abbreviated start in Miami as something of a rehab outing, with this one sitting somewhere in between that and full intensity, but in some ways these games have been better than a few innings for Oklahoma City or Rancho Cucamonga would have been.

“When you send his caliber of pitcher down to the minor leagues, those guys kind of get starstruck,” explained catcher Yasmani Grandal. “It’s not only the hitter, but the umpire back there. He wants to make every close call a strike. Up here it’s gonna be a little different. So it’s not a rehab start, but it’s mentally getting him back at this level and getting the competition. The first time was, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ This was more, ‘Okay, I’m back and ready to go.’”

These have been uncertain days for the 82–63 Dodgers. Without its ace, L.A. starters have the third-best K/9, 8.80, of the second half—and the fewest innings pitched. The offense scored eight runs on Monday and was shut out the day before and the day after. The team’s win Wednesday, coupled with the Giants’ 3–1 loss to cap a sweep at the hands of the Padres, gives the Dodgers a five-game lead in the division with 17 to play with two more games to go against San Francisco. 

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If it can get there, L.A. is set up for Kershaw to pitch Game 1 of the NLDS and return for a possible Game 4 on short or Game 5 on regular rest.

So Wednesday afternoon was about more than just picking up a game in the win column.

“To see Clayton go out there and do what he does,” said Roberts, “It was a big lift for us.”

And there was a small sense of personal relief for the manager when Kershaw gave up that fifth-inning single to end the no-hitter.

“Under the circumstances, I don’t think there would have been an opportunity to go much deeper,” Roberts said with a grin. “But it did happen to cross my mind.”

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