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Clayton Kershaw returns against Nationals to boost Dodgers' rotation

After a month-plus on the sidelines, Clayton Kershaw returns to action Tuesday night. (Ross D. Franklin/AP) After a month-plus on the sidelines, Clayton Kershaw returns to action Tuesday night. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

Have the Dodgers been a disappointment thus far this season? They are entering Tuesday's action in third place in a division they were almost unanimously expected to win this season, but they are tied with the Braves for the second wild-card spot in the National League, and their 18-15 record would have them in first place in the AL East and just a half-game out of first in the NL East. That under-performance has been nowhere near as dramatic as those of the Pirates, Red Sox, Rays, Reds, and Cardinals, not to mention the Indians, of whom less was expected but who join the first four on that list as 2013 playoff teams currently sporting losing records.

It hasn't helped that Los Angeles has been missing ace Clayton Kershaw since returning from their late-March series against the Diamondbacks in Australia due to an inflamed teres major muscle behind his left shoulder. But thankfully for the Dodgers, Kershaw's absence will come to an end Tuesday night as he returns to the Dodgers rotation to start against Nationals rookie Blake Treinen in Washington, D.C.

Even without Kershaw, the Dodgers' rotation has excelled, entering Tuesday's action with the fifth-best rotation ERA in baseball (3.04) despite receiving just the one Australian start from Kershaw. That said, Kershaw's absence has clearly weakened the quintet. In five starts in Kershaw's stead, Paul Maholm has gone 1-2 with a 4.76 ERA, the latter mark more than a run and a half higher than that of any of the other four Dodger pitchers to make multiple starts this season. What's more, with Maholm already deployed, the team had to call on Stephen Fife to fill in for the injured Hyun-jin Ryu on Sunday, resulting in a start in which Fife allowed four runs in six innings in an eventual Dodgers loss. The Dodgers are 2-4 in those six games combined. Make them 4-2 in those games and they're in second place in the West and leading the wild-card race with the fourth-best record in baseball.

Kershaw's return will keep Fife in the minors, shifting Maholm in to Ryu's spot. What's more, a positive report on Ryu's sore shoulder—the team didn't even bother with an MRI and has already cleared him to begin throwing again—suggests that the Dodgers' rotation could be whole again by the end of next week, when Ryu is eligible to return. Ryu's return would push Maholm into the bullpen where he could serve as a long-man or second lefty, compounding the benefit that unit is due to receive from Kershaw's return.

Of the five L.A. starters to make multiple starts this season, a group that does not yet include Kershaw, only Dan Haren has averaged more than six innings pitched per start, coming in at a still-modest 6.28 IP/GS. As a result, the Dodgers' bullpen currently leads the major leagues with 119 innings pitched, an average of 3.6 per game, the most in the National League. In contrast, Kershaw was second in the major leagues last year with 7.15 innings pitched per start (Cliff Lee had 7.18), so, assuming Kershaw picks up where he left off, he should not only fill a hole in the Dodgers' rotation, but also significantly ease the burden on their bullpen, as well.

Those are the specific ways in which Kershaw's return should benefit the Dodgers, who also appear to have found at least a short-term fix to their catching woes with veteran Miguel Olivo swinging a hot bat and incumbent A.J. Ellis making quick progress in his return from meniscus surgery on his left knee. The short version is more obvious: A heavily favored team already occupying a playoff spot is adding the best pitcher in baseball to its rotation Tuesday night.

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