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The Strike Zone

Kershaw's injury may jeopardize Dodgers' playoff chances

Clayton Kershaw is 12-9 this season with a 2.70 ERA. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Saturday afternoon the Dodgers announced that ace Clayton Kershaw would not make his scheduled start on Sunday in the finale of the team’s series against the Cardinals, the team they were chasing for the second National League Wild Card spot. Instead, Kershaw was going to travel to New York where, on Tuesday, he would see a specialist about the hip inflammation that has been bothering him since before his last start. It’s possible that Kershaw won’t pitch again this season, which would be a mighty blow to the Dodgers’ hopes. Eight hours later, the Dodgers were trailing the Cardinals 3-2 and down to their last strike in the bottom of the ninth, about to drop two games behind for the last NL playoff spot with a distinct chance of being three games out in 24 hours with Stephen Fife starting in place of Kershaw on Sunday.

Then Andre Ethier singled off Cardinals closer Jason Motte. Pinch-runner Dee Gordon stole second against Yadier Molina, who had nailed Gordon with the most perfect catcher’s throw you’ll ever see in a similar situation on Thursday night. Minor league journeyman and burgeoning Dodgers folk hero Luis Cruz crushed a double over Jon Jay’s head in center to plate Gordon and tie the game, and Juan Rivera lifted a flair over second baseman Daniel Descalso to bring in pinch-runner Elian Herrera and give the Dodgers a 4-3 win that brought them into a tie with St. Louis for the second wild card.

With that win, the Dodgers changed the identity of the teams residing in the NL’s five playoff spots for the first time since September 22, when the Cardinals passed the Pirates to move into that second wild-card spot. The race for that spot has been close ever since, but it had been the Cardinals’ alone for 24 days. That win surely made the Dodgers forget about the bad news they received earlier in the day, but not for long. Sunday at 1:10 p.m. Pacific time, Stephen Fife will take the mound in the top of the first inning in the finale of this series and Kershaw’s absence will be glaring.

That’s not to a shot at Fife, who has posted a 2.16 ERA in three spot starts this season, two of them quality (albeit with more walks than strikeouts). It’s that Kershaw, the defending National League Cy Young-award winner and one of the top contenders for the award again this year, is irreplaceable. With Chad Billingsley, who had gone 6-0 with a 1.80 ERA in his last seven starts, out for the year with an elbow injury that could require Tommy John surgery, a season-ending injury to Kershaw, who over his last nine starts had compiled a 1.76 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 4.67 K/BB, and averaged 7.4 innings per start, would completely behead the Dodgers’ rotation.

Given that the Cardinals follow this series with nine games against the Astros and Cubs, while only three of Dodgers’ final 15 games come against a team with a losing record, and that St. Louis is expecting to activate their 2011 ace, Chris Carpenter, just as Los Angeles might be losing theirs, it’s hard to imagine the Dodgers making the playoffs without Kershaw. Then again, if the Cardinals’ offense continues to sleepwalk through September (they have averaged just 3 1/3 runs per game in this series and just 3.17 runs per game over their last 18), the bar for entry may be lower than expected. Behind the Cardinals and Dodgers lurk the Pirates (two games back) and Brewers (2 1/2) both of whom won on Saturday, the former breaking a seven-game losing streak with a 7-6 win over the Cubs, and the Phillies (three games back), who lost to the Astros for the second time in three days but were pulled back from the brink by the Dodgers’ ninth-inning heroics.

Over in the other league, the Rangers lost to the Mariners while the A’s beat the Orioles, which not only dropped Baltimore a game behind the Yankees in the AL East, but brought Oakland within two games of Texas in the AL West. That’s the smallest the Rangers’ lead in that division has been since April 13 as the A’s have shaved four games off the Rangers’ advantage in the last three weeks. That’s no fault of the Rangers’ by the way. They’ve gone 11-8 (.579) since August 25, but the A’s just don’t lose anymore. Oakland has gone 23-6 over its last 29 games, 15-4 since August 25, and won eight of its last nine.

The Rangers and A’s have seven head-to-head games remaining, including the final three games of the season in Oakland, and it now seems certain that the division is going to come down to those games. If it’s any consolation to the Rangers and their fans, their two-game lead is the largest in any of the American League’s three divisions.

-- Cliff Corcoran

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