By Rowan Kavner
FOX Sports MLB Writer
Facing the Diamondbacks for the second time in less than a week, struggling to put Christian Walker away in the midst of a relentless 12-pitch at-bat, Clayton Kershaw tried something on Monday night that he hadn’t since 2020.
He threw a curveball on a three-ball count.
Will Smith had called for Public Enemy No. 1 on the pitch prior, but Kershaw shook his catcher off in favor of a slider. Kershaw has, after all, posted a 2.39 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in his 15th major league season while firing only four-seamers and sliders 83 percent of the time. The left-hander’s reluctance to spin a curveball while behind in the count is a reflection of his uncertainty about whether or not he can throw it for a strike.
But after Walker fouled his sixth straight pitch off, Kershaw knew it was time.
The element of surprise neutralized the Arizona first baseman, who had given Kershaw trouble in the past. The curveball, looping 72.9 mph toward the bottom of the zone, got Walker swinging for one of Kershaw’s 10 strikeouts on the night. It was the latest gem in a string of them since the left-hander came off the injured list, offering further optimism about Kershaw’s health as October approaches.
“I know he doesn’t take for granted any start,” manager Dave Roberts said, “and that’s what makes him great.”
These late September games may not make much of a difference for a Dodger team that has already clinched the division and a first-round bye in the postseason, but they matter for Kershaw as he tries to get right for the playoffs after two trips to the IL this season due to his troublesome back.
He was unavailable last postseason due to a flexor tendon injury, left to watch and ponder his future as Julio Urías, Walker Buehler and Max Scherzer shouldered much of the pitching load before a National League Championship Series exit. Kershaw did not pick up a baseball again until January. He felt healthier as the offseason — and MLB’s lockout — continued. As he considered whether to sign back with the Dodgers or with his hometown Rangers, the thought of another October opportunity pushed him back to Los Angeles for another year. He felt he could still be additive to a postseason run.
He is demonstrating that now in his age 34 season. And with the playoffs on the horizon, he doesn’t want to miss out again.
“You want to be a part of it,” Kershaw said. “That’s why I came back. That’s why everybody wants to be on this team. It’s a special group, and we’ve got a chance to do something special.”
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As of Tuesday afternoon, the Dodgers are the only major-league team whose starting pitchers boast a sub-3.00 ERA as a group. They have thrived despite a load of obstacles. Three-time Cy Young Award winner Scherzer left in free agency. Two-time All-Star and postseason star Buehler threw his last pitch of the year on June 10. Tony Gonsolin, a National League Cy Young Award contender, hasn’t pitched in a month as he tries to work his way back from a forearm strain in time to contribute in the postseason.
Every absence makes the presence, health and production of veterans such as Kershaw and Urías more vital.
“Any time you lose an All-Star starter late in the season, it’s concerning,” Roberts said. “But you’re counting on other guys to step up.”
If there were any questions about how a nearly month-long layoff due to his latest back injury might impact Kershaw’s second half and beyond, he has answered them with his first four starts off the injured list.
Kershaw is 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA, 29 strikeouts and four walks in September. In his last two starts, both against the Diamondbacks, Kershaw combined to surrender one run with 15 strikeouts and a walk in 13 innings. He will be facing lineups deeper than Arizona’s once the playoffs arrive, but the experience of seeing a foe multiple times in a short period is a test he will see throughout October.
He passed the early September version with ease.
“The health is there, the performance is there, the build-up is there,” Roberts said. “Obviously the preparation, the mindset, all that stuff you can bank on. We feel good right now.”
Primarily a two-pitch pitcher who sprinkles in a highly effective curveball when needed, Kershaw’s strategy doesn’t vary considerably by opponent. He is masterful at what he does well.
Six days after attacking the Diamondbacks with a steady diet of upper-zone fastballs and sliders on the edge, the plan Monday appeared to be much the same. After getting 10 whiffs on his slider against the Diamondbacks last week, he got 11 on the pitch this week against the same opponent.
“You don’t want to overthink too much,” Kershaw said. “There’s only so many things I can do. I don’t have too many tricks up my sleeve, so try and just execute your pitches as best you can. But at the same time, you don’t want to be too predictable either.”
It is what works for the left-hander, who has redefined himself while remaining among the league’s elite pitchers despite no longer possessing the mid-90s velocity he displayed in his 20s. He still only needs the fastball and slider to succeed, tunneling the two pitches to near perfection. They supplied nine of his 10 strikeouts on Monday night, helping the Dodgers clinch a first-round bye in the process.
But sometimes, finishing a lengthy at-bat requires something more, such as a full-count curveball when it’s least expected.
“You can’t give in,” Kershaw said. “You can’t show that you’re tired. You can’t make a mistake. You’ve just got to keep going.”
That is also Kershaw’s plan as he builds up for the playoffs, on track right now to contribute the way he envisioned when he chose the Dodgers this offseason.
“Physically, feel great,” Kershaw said. “I’m in a good spot. … Got a couple more until October.”
Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.
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