LOS ANGELES — A lot has happened since Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw last took the mound on July 3 at Nationals Park.
The Dodgers acquired Max Scherzer and Trea Turner from the Nationals. Walker Buehler and Julio Urías are now having career seasons. Corey Seager is back from a fractured wrist, and Mookie Betts is hitting at a more consistent clip despite dealing with a hip issue.
All of those positives for the last two and a half months have the Dodgers winning at a ridiculous rate, even with Kershaw missing several months with left forearm tightness. But as well as the Dodgers have played in Kershaw’s absence, there’s no denying that Los Angeles is a better team when the future Hall of Famer is healthy.
After two long months, Kershaw made a successful return to the mound on Monday, allowing one run on four hits over 4 1/3 innings of work in the Dodgers’ 5-1 win over the D-backs at Dodger Stadium.
With the win, the Dodgers’ magic number to clinch a spot in the postseason is down to two. They remain 2 1/2 games behind the Giants, who beat the Padres on Monday, in the National League West race. Los Angeles has 17 games left in the regular season.
“For me to be able to be a part of it is huge,” Kershaw said of rejoining the team as they try to chase down the Giants. “I will never take that for granted ever, to be in a playoff race and to be a part of it. It’s a good one right now. Giants aren’t losing, so they’re not making it easy on us. It’s going to be fun.”
Kershaw’s outing got off to a quick start, striking out D-backs shortstop Nick Ahmed on four pitches. After that, Kershaw ran into some early trouble. Ketel Marte hit a one-out double and Arizona got on the board early as Josh Rojas hit a two-out RBI bloop single into left field.
It took Kershaw 20 pitches to get through the first inning, but the veteran southpaw was able to settle down. Kershaw needed just five pitches to retire the side in order in the third inning. In the fourth, Kershaw struck out Jake McCarthy on a 3-2 slider to strand a runner in scoring position.
As usual, Kershaw leaned on his four-seamer/slider combination for most of the night. He did, however, utilize his curveball more than usual, and it proved to be effective. He threw the pitch 12 times, recording three swings and misses.
“He was throwing the fastball where he wanted to and mixed it up a little bit,” said Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes. “His curveball was really good today and his slider is always there. It was a good outing for Kersh and we’re excited to have him back.”
The one slight concern from Kershaw’s outing was his velocity. Kershaw was sitting at 88-90 mph with his four-seam fastball throughout the night, averaging 89.2 mph on the pitch, down from his 90.7 season average. The velocities on his slider and curveball were also down, but that didn’t stop him from being efficient.
So efficient, in fact, that Kershaw’s outing was a little longer than planned. Kershaw was slated to pitch four innings and throw no more than 60 pitches. But because Kershaw got through four having thrown just 49 pitches, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts felt comfortable with trotting the ace back out on the mound to start the fifth. Kershaw needed one pitch to retire D-backs pitcher Zac Gallen, ending his outing.
“There’s just no way to simulate a big league game, there’s really not,” Kershaw said. “You can do all the bullpens, all the rehabs, all the working out you want, but for whatever reason pitching in a big league game is just different. … I’m glad I got this first one behind me and I’ll have a few more that, hopefully, I can contribute and we can win this thing.”
Kershaw returning certainly boosts the Dodgers’ chances to win another World Series. He gives the Dodgers another proven starter in a rotation that also includes Scherzer, Buehler and Urías. Those four would give the Dodgers a chance against any team in a playoff series.
Kershaw admitted that he didn’t know what his availability would look like as he battled back from the forearm injury. But he was able to return on Monday, much to the delight of his teammates.
“He’s our guy,” said Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner. “We’re all excited to see him back out there.”