SAN FRANCISCO — It all felt familiar. Clayton Kershaw, pitching in this ballpark on a picturesque mid-June afternoon, and once again bearing the burden of a significant role in a Dodgers rotation that suddenly needs a lot more help.
Given the health update on the rare Dodgers starter to swipe an Opening Day assignment away from the franchise’s all-time leader in strikeouts, Kershaw’s start Saturday in a 3-2 loss to the Giants signaled not just Kershaw’s return from the injured list but also a reassuming of his customary mantle of summers past.
The loss gnawed at him in part because it risked the Dodgers falling out of first place for the first time since May, depending on how the Padres fared later Saturday. The Dodgers tallied 13 hits behind Kershaw and had two separate bases-loaded opportunities in the late innings that proved fruitless. The club stranded 14 runners over the course of the day.
“This is one that I expect our guys to look back and know that we gave it away,” manager Dave Roberts said of a day that was frustrating for more than just situational woes. “We shouldn’t have lost this game.”
The Dodgers are hoping Kershaw’s return to this role is temporary, that Walker Buehler’s elbow holds up enough for him to return and lead this club into October, just as they spent years hoping Kershaw’s back would hold up as they added more and more weight on top of it. That back injury shelved Kershaw through May after a brilliant April but healed up in time for him to try on a familiar hat this weekend.
“For the first one,” Kershaw said, “I thought it was all right.”
The Dodgers were patient and diligent in working him back, with October in mind from the moment Kershaw decided to come back to Los Angeles on a one-year pact this spring. The only time Kershaw pitched on the Oracle Park mound last season came in July when he threw three simulated innings in an attempt to rush himself back from a forearm issue. He later conceded that his urgency to insert himself into a heated division race against the Giants only pushed his rehab back further; he didn’t pitch again until September, lasting four starts before exiting the final weekend of the regular season with a recurrence of that discomfort.
The elbow is healthy — Kershaw has remarked throughout the spring and even during this stint on the injured list that his arm feels good. His balky back has been tamed. On Saturday, he was “everything and more we had hoped for,” Roberts said.
Kershaw pitched. He deftly navigated traffic. His slider dove underneath bats. Kershaw’s two turns through the Giants order were effective, save for a two-strike slider that stuck around the middle of the plate for a Thairo Estrada home run. Another two-strike count, after Luis González twice squared to bunt, burned him too as González stroked a single to score a second run.
The pitching line checked off most of what the Dodgers had hoped. He stuck around his anticipated pitch count with 71 pitches. Just two runs scored off Kershaw over his four innings, and he struck out four. More importantly, Kershaw passed his first test back.
Given the uncertain state of Buehler’s right elbow, their returns come at an opportune time. Buehler officially went on the injured list Saturday but avoided the worst-case scenario for now.
An MRI and tests from Dr. Neal ElAttrache in Los Angeles revealed a flexor strain in Buehler’s right elbow. The pitcher won’t need surgery, Roberts said, but won’t pick up a baseball for six to eight weeks. Conventional wisdom is that a build-up back from injury requires as much time as the pitcher took off, so Buehler’s elbow could knock him out until September, around the time the Dodgers could expect to see Dustin May back from Tommy John surgery.
Roberts said, “as of now,” they still expect Buehler back this season.
“It’s gonna be some time,” he said.
This is a rotation that banked its October hopes on a 27-year-old right-hander. It was his time to assume the mantle as the club’s Opening Day starter. He’d already long held the role of the club’s premier postseason stopper, the rare level of pitcher who can help meaningfully shift a coin-flip series in October. Not having him will impact Los Angeles then as much, if not more, than it will as it navigates the coming weeks.
“When you lose one of the best pitchers in the game, it’s a big blow to anybody, especially us,” said Freddie Freeman. “Luckily we got Clayton back today because having both of them gone would’ve been a big, huge blow.”
As Kershaw spoke following his outing, his Apple Watch buzzed with Buehler calling. The flexor strain designation was the same one that Kershaw received in his elbow in October — the 34-year-old left-hander didn’t require surgery, but received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow once he was ruled out for the season. Now, it’s Kershaw the Dodgers will count on heavily once again.
“It’s tough to lose Walker for any amount of time,” Kershaw said moments after the call. “He’s a stud. … All of us are going to have to step up for however long he is out and do our best.”
“That definitely makes the blow a little bit softer,” Mookie Betts said of Kershaw’s return. “But it’d be nice to have both.”
Buehler’s injury came after a month-long morass in which he struggled to find consistency in his typically refined mechanics, revealing the vulnerabilities in his once-dominant fastball. He seemed to find something resembling his old self Friday night, only to feel a “zing” in his right elbow while throwing a third-inning breaking ball that just didn’t go away. Lingering discomfort has cropped up off and on since Buehler underwent Tommy John surgery shortly after getting drafted in 2015, but this was “different.”
“(It’s) something we need to check out,” Buehler said Friday night once his start was cut short after 70 pitches.
Even if Buehler was quick to dismiss that his elbow led to some of his struggles, the joint has now only added to the frustration. Without Buehler, the scrutiny falls onto the rest of the Dodgers’ rotation, including a familiar location on the state of its franchise icon in Kershaw.
“We’ve had a lot of practice over the years and certainly in my tenure where we’ve lost key pieces on the pitching side and guys having to step up and respond and log innings and perform,” Roberts said. “So I don’t think it’s any different. We’re certainly better with Walker, but that’s not going to be for quite some time.”
In a way, the Dodgers already had to deal with him not at his best. Buehler’s 4.02 ERA slotted him 43rd among qualified starters this season, a departure from the performance that had Buehler vying for an ERA title in his first 200-inning campaign. Yet, the Dodgers handled it well; they had the best rotation ERA in baseball as their ace was their least productive starter, and as Kershaw and Heaney sat on the shelf. Tony Gonsolin, whose spot in the rotation was far from a guarantee entering spring training, trails only Joe Musgrove among National League starters in ERA (minimum 50 innings) at 1.58. Tyler Anderson, signed as a swingman sixth starter, went on a 28-inning scoreless run. They’ve cobbled together spot starts from the likes of Mitch White, Ryan Pepiot and Michael Grove.
They’ve survived the first two months. But without Buehler, the razor-thin margin just shaved off a little more room.
(Photo of Clayton Kershaw: Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)