Roughly six hours before the first pitch of their NLDS Game 4 matchup against the Braves, the Dodgers have announced that they will start ace Clayton Kershaw on three days' rest, not scheduled starter Ricky Nolasco. The move is an obvious attempt to finish off Atlanta, whom Los Angeles leads 2-games-to-1 in the best-of-five series, but it will also mark the first time in Kershaw's career that he has started on three days' rest, and he'll be doing so coming off a 124-pitch outing in Game 1.
This move is a byproduct of the extra off-day in this year's Division Series, allowing managers to use their Game 2 starters on full rest in Game 5. If the Kershaw maneuver doesn't pan out for the Dodgers, they will still have Zack Greinke on four days' rest for Game 5. If it does pan out, Greinke could start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on extra rest and Kershaw could start Game 2 on full rest.
As recently as Sunday night, in the wake of the Dodgers' 13-6 victory over the Braves in Game 3, Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt told the Los Angeles Times that Kershaw would not start on short rest. "He's our future. You don't want to mess around with it," said Honeycutt, who also told the paper that the Dodgers had considered using Kershaw on short rest only to avoid elimination had they lost Game 3. However, with that possibility in mind, they had Kershaw cut back on his between-start bullpen session on Saturday, and with Kershaw having thus effectively prepared to start Game 4, the coaching staff apparently had a change of heart on Monday. Given Honeycutt's comments Sunday night, it will be interesting to see if there is any fallout among the coaching staff or front office as a result of this decision.
It's easy to see why the Dodgers shied away from starting Nolasco. As I wrote in my preview of Game 4 earlier Monday morning, when he was still the scheduled starter, Nolasco gave up 19 runs (17 earned) in 12 innings in his final three starts of the regular season and is 6-10 with a 5.11 ERA against the Braves in his career. Less clear is what they can expect from Kershaw.
It's generally accepted that any starter who is used to pitching on four days' rest will be diminished by starting on less than that, but the degree to which that will occur varies from pitcher to pitcher. Last postseason, the only pitcher to start three days after another start was the Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda, who, like Kershaw was making the first such start of his career. Kuroda was excellent in that ALCS game against the Tigers, not allowing a run until the seventh inning and ultimately allowing just three in 7 2/3 innings while striking out 11 against no walks. Prior to that, the Cardinals turned to Chris Carpenter on three days' rest for Game 7 of the 2011 World Series and Carpenter pitched six strong innings to help nail down the championship for St. Louis.
Of course, Carpenter has only pitched in six games since due to injury, and his career looks over following a bout with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome from which he was unable to return this year, but that seems more like a product of Carpenter's established fragility and advancing age than his single start on short rest.
Most likely, Kershaw will be merely good rather than the dominant ace he was in Game 1, but with Freddy Garcia going for the Braves, that could be enough for Los Angeles. It's also worth noting that each of Kershaw's last three starts came on extra rest. The Dodgers pushed back Kershaw's penultimate regular season start to give him seven days of rest heading into that game. He then made both his final regular-season start and his Game 1 start on five days' rest. In those three games combined, he allowed just one run in 20 innings while striking out 30. He won't be that good in Game 4, but this gamble could very well save the Dodgers a plane trip to Atlanta and increase their chances of using Kershaw twice in a potential NLCS. Of course, if it doesn't work and the Dodgers lose this series and/or Kershaw gets hurt, it could prove to be a fireable offense for whichever member of the coaching staff or front office instigated the move.