Saturday, July 13, 2024

Alexander: Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw may not dominate, but he’s still an ace

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LOS ANGELES — If Saturday night indeed turns out to be the last time Clayton Kershaw would pitch a regular season game in his home ballpark … well, remember the old adage about always leaving ’em wanting more.

The best pitcher of his generation, and maybe the best pitcher the Dodgers have ever had (and we’ll get to the Kershaw vs. Sandy Koufax debate in a bit), hasn’t necessarily reinvented himself as much as he’s learned how to make do, and quite well at that.

He didn’t break 90 on the radar gun Saturday night, but you could argue he didn’t need to. In his five-inning stint in the Dodgers’ 7-0 victory over the Giants, his hardest pitch was an 89.7 four-seamer that Luis Matos fouled off in the fifth. Of his 76 pitches (47 for strikes), he mixed sliders (35 of them) and four-seamers (25) with the occasional curve – one of them a 72 mph hook that froze Mitch Haniger for strike three in the second inning – and a couple of changeups.

In other words, the man flat-out pitched. There should be little question of his effectiveness at this stage of his career, and his numbers would bear that out: A 13-4 record, 2.42 ERA and 1.053 WHIP in 23 starts.

No, it’s not vintage Kershaw, and he sort of suggested that he missed his old self.

“I’d much rather just be good the whole time and throw as hard as I possibly could,” he said. “I mean, it’s no fun to have to figure stuff out, but, you know, adapt or die. You have to.”

Of course, good is relative, as manager Dave Roberts pointed out.

“I thought tonight he was good, and good is relative to how you get there,” he said. “I think – in his mind, ‘good’ is being able to bully guys with what he’s always done. But I would argue good is good and (is) getting major league hitters out. And it doesn’t matter how you get there.

“But, you know, I certainly applaud him for going about it a different way and getting the same result.”

The main issues right now are health and durability. Saturday night’s goal, as Roberts outlined it before the game, was to get him to five innings and 75 pitches, so mission accomplished there. That outing was on six days rest and so will Kershaw’s next scheduled start, next Saturday in San Francisco. Game 1 of the National League Division Series, at Dodger Stadium against an opponent still to be determined, will be the following Saturday, and we know that Kershaw and Bobby Miller will pitch the first two games but not in which order.

“Yeah, I’m on the college schedule,” Kershaw cracked. “I’m the Saturday starter.”

We would argue that he’s the ace, which in college would make him the Friday starter. Either way, the extra time between starts has allowed him to positively tweak his routine.

“It gives you a chance to maybe go a little bit harder in the bullpen to execute pitches, try to work on things,” he said. “Maybe try to work out, do some different things that maybe make you a little bit more sore in between because you have the extra time. So I’m trying to take advantage of it as best I can.”

The extra rest has been considered necessary because of (a) the mysterious issues with Kershaw’s shoulder, mysterious because both player and ballclub have kept the actual explanation under wraps, and (b) a puzzling reduction in velocity dating back to his Sept. 5 start in Miami. It was after that game that he went on the every-seventh-day plan.

When Kershaw asked out of a game in Colorado on June 27 after six innings and 79 pitches with a one-hitter and a 5-0 lead, the red flags went up. A couple of days later, after receiving an injection for inflammation in his shoulder, he described his shoulder as “a little cranky.” He didn’t pitch again for 43 days, and since then he has yet to go beyond the fifth inning.

Maybe we can now describe the shoulder as “obstinate,” or “stubborn.” Yet the 35-year-old Kershaw is still available, in a year where injuries and misconduct have decimated the rotation that was projected coming out of spring training. It’s Kershaw and the Kids, and in his 16th season as a Dodger, he perhaps has established himself as the franchise’s ace of aces.

In getting the win Saturday night Kershaw passed Don Drysdale on the Dodgers’ all-time career victories list with his 210th, moving into second place behind Don Sutton (233).

And yet, if you were to ask the public, the title of best pitcher ever for a team with such a rich pitching heritage probably would come down to Kershaw, with his 16 seasons of excellence, and Koufax, who put together maybe the six most dominant seasons in baseball history from 1961-66, the last two of those with an elbow so severely damaged that he retired at age 30.

How you stand on such a debate likely depends on which generation you belong to. But we know this much: The moment Kershaw’s career ends, the five-year countdown to Cooperstown will begin.

So Saturday night may have been somewhat historic, if it indeed was his last Dodger Stadium start. We don’t know, and neither does Kershaw, since in recent seasons he has worked on one-year contracts and said a few days ago he had “no idea” what next year would bring.

Right now, there are other things to think about.

“I think it’s always special to get to pitch here,” he said. “And, you know, thankfully we’re in the playoffs. It’s a nice distraction so you don’t really have to think about next year or anything like that. Whenever it could be your last one, you maybe take a second extra. But I’m so far away from that decision that I don’t even have time to worry about it.”

He’ll have at least one more start in The Ravine, in the Division Series – and if this goes the way the Dodgers are hoping, more to come after that.

jalexander@scng.com

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