- The best team in baseball's best pitcher wasn't quite his best on Friday night. Can he retain that level of dominance this October?
For all the talk about Bryce Harper’s knee and Jake Arrieta’s hamstring, the piece of flesh that will have the most to say about which National League team reaches the World Series might be a postcard-size portion of Clayton Kershaw’s lower back.
Friday night’s Game 1 of the National League Division series offered more proof that there is no more dominant starter in baseball right now. It also suggested that Kershaw is mortal, although the source of his current vulnerability is hard to pinpoint. Kershaw struck out 7 Diamondbacks and held Arizona to 5 hits over 6 1/3 innings in Los Angeles on Friday, but four of those hits were solo home runs by A.J. Pollock in the third, J.D. Martinez in the sixth, and Ketel Marte and Jeff Mathis in the seventh. For a pitcher who allowed a career-high 23 home runs this season, the same number he gave up in the last two seasons combined, the question for Kershaw—the question he will likely be asked for the remainder of his Hall of Fame career—is, How’s the back?
“Fine, thank you,” he said at Friday’s postgame press conference. He added that he felt no ill effects from the lumbar injuries that cost him 18 starts over the last two years, and said those ailments were in his rear view mirror. “I felt fine. [The ball] just wasn’t coming out as good as I would have liked it to that last inning. I just didn’t have much [energy] left … Obviously, it was frustrating the way it ended but thankfully I had a big lead.”
In late July, Dodger Nation held its collective breath when Kershaw left in the second inning of a start against Atlanta with what looked like a recurrence of the disc injury that put him on the disabled list for 75 days in 2016. It proved to be just a muscle strain, not a herniated disc—the latter a far more serious injury in which the cushion between two vertebrae protrudes and presses against a nerve, causing pain that can make the strongest among us plead for mercy, and renders even thoroughbreds like Kershaw incapable of breathing, much less hitting 95 on the gun.
Once the strain healed enough for Kershaw to return to the rotation in early September, he started six games for the team with the best record in baseball. Two of his September starts were good, two were bad, and two were somewhere in the middle. The 29-year-old Kershaw, who owns three Cy Youngs and an NL MVP award, doesn’t usually cruise in baseball’s middle lane.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after Friday’s win that neither injury has been an issue recently, despite the increase in long balls Kershaw has allowed. “In the fourth, fifth and sixth [innings] his slider just wasn’t there so he was going with this fastball … I think he’s strong, he’s healthy. Since he’s been back he has continued to get better. Obviously we know the history, but managing him in his start, I’m not thinking about the back.”
Kershaw’s brilliant career has set a high bar. Even fully healthy stars can have an off night. Maybe that was it. Or maybe those four home run balls were just a matter of round spheres striking round bats at just the right angle, through no fault of the man who threw them. Dumb luck, in other words. Whether that’s the case, or whether there’s something still amiss near the delicate stack of bones between the blue 2s on Kershaw’s jersey, the rest of baseball is waiting to see if he can accelerate once again into faster traffic, the lane in which he has frustrated a decade’s worth of hitters, or whether he will start to merge right and watch the Dodgers’ historic, 104-win season end, as it has each of the last 29 seasons, somewhere short of a world championship.
“Right now I’m preparing for a potential Game 5,” Kershaw said, “and hopefully Game 1 of the next series.”
Arizona manager Torey Luvullo suggested that if that Game 5 proves necessary, his team will be ready. “You score some runs off him the way we did, it gives you a little bit of confidence.”