Tag: Clayton Kershaw

Scott Miller’s Starting 9: Bryce, Machado, Championship Coffee and Looking Ahead

A free-agent storm is on the way, some big names can’t find homes and some unintended victims of MLB‘s new CBA…


1. Forecast Two Years From Now: Nuts

Talk about attention deficit disorder. As free agents Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista go door-to-door asking, “Brother, can you spare a free-agent contract?” this winter, one reason things are moving so slowly is because even the industry’s executives are looking ahead to the free-agent class two years from now.

It may be the best ever: Bryce Harper, who won the 2015 NL MVP award, will be on the market. So will Josh Donaldson, who won the 2015 AL MVP award. Manny Machado, who finished fourth in AL MVP voting in 2015 and fifth in 2016, is free. So, too, are starters Matt Harvey and Dallas Keuchel, and closer Zach Britton.

If that isn’t enough, Clayton Kershaw has an opt-out clause in his Los Angeles Dodgers contract that winter, as does David Price from the Boston Red Sox.

Harper and Machado will be entering the free-agent market at the age of just 26. Britton and Keuchel will be nearly 31, Donaldson 32, Harvey 29 and, if they use the opt-out, Kershaw will be 30 and Price the old man of the lot at 33.

Executives are making roster moves right now with an eye to 2018. It’s one reason why the Washington Nationals acquired Adam Eaton from the White Sox: They are leveraging themselves for the real possibility that they will lose Harper to free agency given that he is expected to demand a deal worth $400 million or more.

It’s why, other than the Aroldis Chapman signing last week, the New York Yankees mostly are concentrating on young talent and short-term veterans (like signing Matt Holliday to a one-year deal this winter for $13 million).

The executives know what’s up ahead, a winter unlike any of us has ever seen.

“As we bring more youthful executives into the game, there seems to be a tide to young players,” superagent Scott Boras, who represents Harper, Britton and Harvey in that group, said at the winter meetings last Wednesday at National Harbor, Maryland. “I think the information that is going to ownership is that those players who are 26-, 27-, 28-year-old free agents are very, very highly coveted.

“A lot of clubs have now marshaled their positioning to that age group.”

Every club is going to have money to spend for the foreseeable future, too, with the game expected to surpass $10 billion in revenues in 2016 once the final figures are in. Of course, without a salary cap and with different teams taking in more money than others, some clubs still will be far more equal than others. But the way Boras sees it, each club likely soon will have $200 million or more of revenue at its disposal before even selling tickets.

“Consequently, clubs who have the ability to attract a major superstar are going to be far more in than in prior times because of the success of the game,” Boras said.

Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman happened to be talking about his own free agent this winter, closer Kenley Jansen, but he could have been speaking about anybody in any year when he told reporters last week, per Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register: “The free-agent market plays out to the point of doing more than what you rationally want to do.

“If you do what you rationally want to do, you will finish third on every free agent.”

Who knows, perhaps there will be more fallout, too. The expiration of Machado’s contract coincides with the last year of Baltimore manager Buck Showalter’s deal.

“We’ve got control of him for two, two years?” Showalter said last week. “This year and one more. That’s when my contract runs out. Timing’s everything.”

Everyone laughed at the notion that Showalter could cruise on out the door with his best overall player before the Orioles are weakened immensely in the post-Machado term.

Of course, laughs come easy now, two years ahead of what for some clubs surely will be Armageddon. The laughing will be more difficult for a lot of people when the winter meetings come to Las Vegas (of course they would be there, right?) in December 2018.


2. World’s Greatest Athletes, MLB and…Coffee?

We already have Boras down as a staunch advocate of the free-market system. He long has been vehemently opposed to the slotting system for determining bonuses that can be offered to amateurs drafted each June. And in discussing his reaction to the new collective bargaining agreement, he not surprisingly expressed displeasure with the part of the deal that places a hard cap on international amateur signing bonuses that ranges between $4.75 million in the first year of the agreement to $5.25 million or $5.75 million.

Boras’ gripe: Baseball is waging a battle with other sports for the best athletes in the world, and with the new CBA capping the money available, he thinks those athletes will gravitate hard to other sports. Of course, limitations on signing bonuses take a bite out of the paydays of agents everywhere, as well.

“Most upsetting thing to me is that baseball only has so much earth where the game is played,” he said last week. “We only have a few cultures that really, there’s an opportunity to play baseball in the world. If you go back to the 1930s, the most popular sports in the United States were track and field, boxing, horse racing and baseball. Now, baseball’s included, but we have three other sports in hockey, football and basketball that have eroded the others.

“I think we have to be very cautious. If baseball’s not out pursuing the best athletes in the world, you’ve gotta really look at this and say, ‘What are we doing?’ I was raised on a farm and water’s valuable. If you want to save water and you don’t use it on your crops, you don’t have crops.”

In making his pitch, Boras mentioned not only NBA and NFL signing bonuses, but the college baseball landscape, too.

“We have a grand disadvantage in something out of baseball’s control, and that is the number of college scholarships [available],” Boras said. “We have 11,000 scholarships in football, we have 3,000 in baseball. And you have a young man who’s 6’6” and they need an immediate value. He’s 14, 15 years old and his family is looking for immediate value. He’s looking for a college scholarship or he’s looking for a bonus. And with baseball being last in offering those scholarships, our industry has to look ahead in getting the greatest athletes in the world.

“We have to consider that in how we compete with other sports. So when we get into CBA and even looking beyond that, we have to say as an industry, we’re making $10 billion, should we really build the Berlin Wall to youth? We just cut off the American players and limited them well below the NBA and NFL. And now we’re doing it with the Latin players as well.”

Boras doesn’t think much of the current luxury-tax system, either, in which high-spending teams are taxed a percentage of their payroll over a certain threshold (It’s been $189 million, it will rise during this CBA).

“Under the old CBA, I think the old luxury tax was the Center for Disease Control,” he quipped. “And now the luxury tax should be Starbucks. Because if you want championship coffee, you’d better be visiting there often.”


3. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch Bautista

Whenever Joey Bats signs his free-agent deal, the anticipation is that he will quote actress Sally Field’s Oscar acceptance speech from years ago and exclaim to the signing team and city, “You like me, you really like me!”

By far, the most entertaining moment at last week’s winter meetings came when general manager Dan Duquette told the Baltimore Sun‘s Eduardo A. Encina that though Bautista’s agent reached out to the club, the Orioles wouldn’t even consider signing Bautista because, essentially, Baltimore fans hate him.

“That’s true,” Duquette said. “That’s true. The agent called and I said, ‘Really? Jose is a villain in Baltimore and I’m not going to go tell our fans that we’re courting Jose Bautista for the Orioles because they’re not going to be happy.'”


4. Ruffled Feathers of the Week

Angry that the Washington Nationals acquired outfielder Adam Eaton because the move likely meant the club would shift Trea Turner from center field to shortstop and himself to the bench, Danny Espinosa skipped the club’s annual Winterfest on Saturday.

By Saturday night, the Nationals had shipped Espinosa to the Los Angeles Angels, who were in the market for a second baseman.

Meanwhile, at Pittsburgh’s PirateFest over the weekend, All-Star Andrew McCutchen admitted that the very public rumors that the club nearly had him dealt to the Washington Nationals this month can’t help but bother him.

“I’d be lying to you if I told you none of this bothered me,” McCutchen said, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Stephen J. Nesbitt. “Of course it did. I’m human. If someone cuts you off while you’re driving, you get bothered. To have my name talked about possibly getting traded, yeah, of course that got to me.

“We all have these dreams of being something. My dream is to be a Pirate my whole career. My dream is still to win multiple World Series. We all have those dreams. Sometimes, with my name being popped up there, it did kind of make me think, whoa, those dreams could be altered a little.”

At age 29, McCutchen had one of the worst seasons of his career, hitting .256/.336/.430 with 24 homers and 79 RBI. The days of his 2013 NL MVP award seem further and further away. Among other things, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has talked to him about the possibility of moving to a corner outfield spot, likely right field, as his defensive metrics have declined as well.

“Andrew is a professional guy that I think keeps things in a pretty good place,” Hurdle said at the winter meetings last week. “I think it’s another part of his career that he’s getting to work through, walk through, and he’s got a great support system. That’s one of the things I shared with him, is there anything I can do to help lessen the distraction, to be there, talk, whatever.”

McCutchen is still young enough to resurrect his career. The 2017 season, wherever he is, will be enormous.


5. Unintended Labor Consequences

As part of the new CBA, the players’ per diem meal money will shrink to $30 per day from $105 per day because, among other reasons, each club now will be required to provide a clubhouse chef for players who increasingly eat in the first-rate clubhouses in the new ballparks.

While few folks are likely to feel sorry for the players, there is fallout that will hit the blue-collar ranks, and it is unfortunate: Clubhouse attendants stand to lose thousands of dollars annually in tips each summer. And ancillary members of a team’s traveling party, who don’t make nearly as much as the players and depend on the per diem as a way to supplement their modest salaries, are taking a hit, too.

Traveling media relations folks, for example, who sometimes work 18 hours a day during the season and average only between $40,000 and $50,000 in salary, qualify for per diem and because of this will lose some $5,000 or so in income.

Media relations directors can make up to $80,000 or $100,000 per year, but the vast majority of assistants who work 80-100 hours a week and are away from home half the summer earn only half of that.

Meanwhile, visiting clubhouse attendants who are in the $40,000 salary range and depend on generous tips to get beyond just scraping by will be hit extremely hard now, too.

Here’s hoping (but not expecting) that the individual clubs will move in to help ease the financial loss for the behind-the-scenes personnel who help make the game go but don’t share in the wealth. It’s probably too much to ask, but it’s the right thing to do.


6. Weekly Power Rankings

1. Christmas shopping: The hustle, the bustle, can put you in a foul mood more quickly than Orioles fans thinking about Bautista.

2. Edwin Encarnacion: So, can we show you some real estate in Cleveland, Edwin?

3. La La Land: Darling of the Golden Globe nominations announced this week, the musical tells the story of Corey Seager and Kershaw singing and dancing and wooing free agents Jansen and Justin Turner back to the Dodgers for another championship run in 2017. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are in there somewhere, too, I think.

4. Snow days: The absolute best, the Mike Trout of ways to get out of school. Even well beyond my school years, when I hear snow has caused school closings, wherever I am, I can’t help but smile and feel 16 again.

5. Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize: A no-show at Saturday’s ceremony in Sweden, he’s like the Manny Ramirez of the Nobel Prize ceremony.


7. Plus, 2017, too?

Lord over the peeps at your favorite watering hole or neighborhood basement with this one:

The answers: Koji Uehara closed out the 2013 World Series for the Red Sox, Wade Davis (just acquired from Kansas City last week), who closed out the 2015 World Series for the Royals and, of course, this year’s last-pitch thrower, Mike Montgomery.

Question now is: Can the Cubs win again in 2017 and employ relievers who tossed the clinching pitch in four of the past five World Series?


8. Chatter

• Yankees GM Brian Cashman may have awarded Chapman a record-setting contract for a closer at five years and $86 million, but he isn’t jumping for joy. The part he’s not thrilled about is Chapman’s ability to opt out after the third year, which is just when the Yankees envision having a chance to begin their next dynasty. “Oh, I don’t like it,” Cashman said during a conversation after the Rule 5 draft just before departing the winter meetings last Thursday. “It’s just, at the end of the day, I know that the competition we were up against were giving opt-outs in Years 1 and 2. So at least we were able to put it in Year 3.”

 The Tigers’ retooling effort is on hold. They did not trade J.D. Martinez, despite strong talk that San Francisco is interested. They did not deal Ian Kinsler, despite the fact that the Los Angeles Dodgers have a clear need there. Justin Verlander stayed in Detroit while the White Sox traded ace Chris Sale. And USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale reported that Detroit GM Al Avila did not receive one phone call on slugger Miguel Cabrera, signifying that maybe Detroit will wind up keeping him and paying the $220 million owed him over the next seven years.

 With Ian Desmond in the fold and Mark Trumbo maybe on the horizon, the Colorado Rockies, who have endured six consecutive losing seasons and have not played in the playoffs since 2009, are spending money on free agents for the first time since Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. Must be the Denver school system.

 The Dodgers are still in the market for a second baseman, and one intriguing question is whether new Twins executives Derek Falvey (president of baseball operations) and Thad Levine (general manager) will deal Brian Dozier following his 42-homer season. “As Derek and Thad have said, we have to be open-minded about just about anything that people would bring to us just to try to increase our chances of doing what we need to do both in the short term as well as going forward,” said Twins manager Paul Molitor at the winter meetings.

 Harper doesn’t have much time this month for all of the speculation on his price tag when he becomes a free agent in 2018 because he’s speculating on his own future this week: He’s getting married in San Diego.


9. The Devil(s) Made Him Do It

The Nationals’ Winterfest was highly entertaining over the weekend simply in calculating who wasn’t there. Angry Espinosa wasn’t the only no-show:

Duke basketball was bragging about its celebrity fan, too:


9a. Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Week

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. Thanks for reading this year, thanks for making Bleacher Report such a go-to place and if you haven’t seen this Christmas video, you must (it’s Nobel Prize committee endorsed!).

“Who’s got a beard that’s long and white? 
“Santa’s got a beard that’s long and white.
“Who comes around on a special night? 
“Santa comes around on a special night.
“Special night, beard that’s white
“Must be Santa, must be Santa,
“Must be Santa, Santa Claus.”

— Written by Hal Moore and Bill Fredericks


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Clayton Kershaw Comes Up Small in the Biggest Start of His Life

Clayton Kershaw‘s worst postseason misadventures have mostly been tales of his having it and then losing it.

In Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, he never had it.

The Los Angeles Dodgersace left-hander was long gone by the time Yasiel Puig grounded into a double play to close a 5-0 win for the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on Saturday nightsending them to their first World Series since 1945 and that much closer to their first championship since 1908. After setting out in his latest attempt to save the Dodgers from elimination, Kershaw lasted only five innings and allowed all five of Chicago’s runs.

That only four of those runs were earned is a small consolation prize. Kershaw’s career postseason ERA is up to 4.55 anyway. That’s the highest of any pitcher with at least 85 postseason innings.

And as noted by Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register, Kershaw’s Game 6 performance was just the latest case of his being at his worst when the Dodgers need him most:

This isn’t the only reason L.A. has yet to turn any of its four straight NL West titles into a pennant or a World Series. But it is a reason. And a big one, at that.

Of course, the Dodgers may not have staved off elimination Saturday even if Kershaw had pitched like the three-time Cy Young winner they know him to be. Chicago pitchers Kyle Hendricks and Aroldis Chapman combined to allow only four baserunners, and all four were erased on three double plays and a pickoff. It was 27 up, and 27 down. In circumstances like those, there’s only so much a starting pitcher can do.

It is the primary function of the starting pitcher, however, to at least give his team a chance to win. Kershaw couldn’t even do that.

The vibrations were bad from the beginning. After allowing only two hits and no runs in seven innings in a 1-0 win in Game 2, Kershaw served up a pair of hits and a run to the first two batters he faced Saturday when Dexter Fowler doubled and Kris Bryant singled him home. Then there was an error by Andrew Toles in left field that set up Ben Zobrist for a sacrifice fly.

At the time, Toles’ error sounded like the opening notes of a familiar tune.

Kershaw’s postseason failures are a compelling narrative, but within it is contained a subplot of his teammates letting him down. As August Fagerstrom covered at FanGraphs, it’s typically been the guys in the Dodgers bullpen who have left him unsupported. The L.A. defense’s failure to help him seemed like the next logical step.

But it was also hard to ignore just how un-Kershaw he looked in the first inning. After needing only 84 pitches to get through seven innings in Game 2, he needed 30 to get through one in Game 6. His velocity was there, but he couldn’t get his fastball to go where he wanted it to.

Kershaw couldn’t fix that as the evening wore on, and it became apparent as he threw more and more pitches that he was dealing with another problem. His curveball, one of the great weapons of mass destruction in the sport, was not there. 

Per Brooks Baseball, he threw only 15 of them out of 93 pitches. And as ESPN.com’s Keith Law and many others observed, few of them were any good:

This seemed to become as obvious to Cubs hitters as it was to everyone watching at Wrigley Field or at home. They had come out swinging against Kershaw to begin with and only seemed to grow more comfortable once they realized they could sit on his fastball and slider.

Willson Contreras and Anthony Rizzo did the honors of demolishing both pitches. Contreras deposited a hanging slider in the left field bleachers in the fourth inning. Rizzo went even further into the right field bleachers when he jumped on a sidearm fastball in the fifth inning.

“I think that the first thing I saw is the Cubs’ hitters, they had a great game plan tonight,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, per Ken Gurnick and Carrie Muskat of MLB.com. “And there was a couple mistake sliders that they took advantage of. But they were running counts, they used the whole field, and there was traffic all night for Clayton. And he gave it everything he had, but when they did—when he did make a mistake, they made him pay.”

Officially, Saturday’s outing is not the worst postseason performance of Kershaw’s career.

Per ESPN.com, he put up a game score of 39. He’s done worse in two starts since the Dodgers began their run four years ago: Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals and Game 1 of the NLDS against the Cardinals the next year.

But while Kershaw’s latest effort may not be his worst on paper, it may be the worst in practicality. He at least offered glimmers of hope with two shutout innings in the former and six one-run innings in the latter. A glimmer of hope never even appeared on the Chicago horizon Saturday.

Credit where it’s due: There was never a feeling that the Dodgers had the Cubs right where they wanted them even after they took a 2-1 series lead thanks to Kershaw and Rich Hill in Games 2 and 3. Beating a team that won 103 games in the regular season was never going to be that easy. In outscoring the Dodgers 23-6 in the final three games of the series, the Cubs proved just that.

“The better team won the series,” said Roberts, per Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times.

The thing about aces, though, is that they’re supposed to be the equalizers.

A truly great starting pitcher can level any playing field and turn a squad of underdogs into snarling beasts that rip all reasonable expectations to shreds. Madison Bumgarner did it in 2014. Josh Beckett did it in 2003. Et cetera.

Kershaw has the power to do this. It’s not the constant favor of Lady Luck that’s allowed him to carve out a career 2.37 ERA and the best adjusted ERA in history. He is a perfect pitcher, combining excellent stuff with pinpoint command and a competitive fire that can melt flesh right off the bone.

But for the life of him, he just can’t get his many talents to stick in October. And until he does, disappointment will keep finding the Dodgers.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill Keep Hope Alive with Dodgers Teetering on NLCS Brink

LOS ANGELES — Here they go again: The Los Angeles Dodgers, one loss away from clocking out for the final time in 2016, are handing the ball to Clayton Kershaw.

Poor guy. Already, he missed two-and-a-half months this summer with a herniated disk in his back. And this keeps coming up. Pray the Dodgers pack the proper back brace to protect him in Chicago.

Uh-oh. From the good vibrations following Game 3 when the Dodgers edged ahead of the Chicago Cubs in this National League Championship Series, Dave Roberts’ club has backed itself to a cliff’s edge with two hideous clunkers. The latest, Thursday’s 8-4 face-slap, sets up a Game 6 Saturday in which the Cubs, with a win, will clinch their first World Series appearance since 1945.

But that long-haired, left-handed, bearded obstacle standing between the Cubs and the World Series is not a billy goat.

It is Kershaw.

Yeah, we’ve been down that path this postseason. Seems like, oh, about every other day, in fact. Lather, rinse, repeat.

On Saturday, Hollywood’s favorite action hero will spring to life for the fifth time in these playoffs.

It will be third time he’s done it with his team facing elimination.

There was his short-rest Game 4 start in Los Angeles in the Division Series against Washington.

There was the dramatic, seven-pitch, two-out masterpiece in his first career save situation in Game 5 against the Nationals on one day’s rest, as literal a use of the word “save” as you can draw up, with the winner of that game advancing to meet the Cubs.

And now, with L.A. trailing this NLCS three games to two, here comes Saturday.

Somebody asked Kershaw what his “level of excitement” is, pitching in another loser-go-home game.

“I don’t know if excitement’s the right word,” the three-time Cy Young winner and one-time NL MVP winner said drolly. “But it will be exciting if we win, for sure.”

Whatever. It’s guaranteed to be more exciting than watching Kenta Maeda, Luis Avilan, Pedro Baez and the rest of the nondescript, lump-of-coal pitchers the Dodgers employ who are not named Kershaw, Kenley Jansen or Rich Hill.

My goodness. The more you watch the Dodgers this postseason, the more you understand what a miracle it was that they won the NL West. Kershaw has precious little help in the rotation this side of Hill.

The Dodgers got everything anybody could have expected out of Maeda on Thursday night, which was a molasses-slow pace, a dip into the fourth inning and a departure with two out and his team trailing 1-0. Seriously, for a guy who had worked only seven innings over the past two-and-a-half weeks, it wasn’t like anybody expected a Mona Lisa.

From Kershaw, yes. The Dodgers ask and ask and ask.


“I like our chances to win and push this to a Game 7,” Dodgers All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez said. “We had the same situation against Washington, and we took care of it.”

As the Dodgers prepared to charter to Chicago on Friday, they weren’t exactly thrilled that they had let the lead in this NLCS slip away. But they weren’t exactly overly concerned, either.

“First of all, your fly is open,” Gonzalez quipped in response to a person who asked him one of the first questions.

And, darned if Gonzalez’s observational skills weren’t impeccable.

“We’ve won two games in a row before,” Gonzalez continued. “It’s nothing we can’t do Saturday and Sunday.”

Besides, the Dodgers already know what to expect when they arrive at Wrigley Field after splitting Games 1 and 2 there last weekend.

“Same thing we had in Games 1 and 2,” Gonzalez said. “They can’t put more people in the stands. They can’t cheer any louder.

“It’s not like it’s a loud stadium.”

Besides, while the Cubs’ path to the World Series still must run right smack through Kershaw and Hill, the Dodgers can be thankful they no longer have to face Lester. In four starts against the Dodgers this season, Lester produced a stunning 0.96 ERA: 28 innings, three runs, 16 hits, 25 strikeouts and only four walks.

The $155 million the Cubs spent on Lester may be the best money they’ve spent since Harry Caray’s expense account: In dominating the Dodgers over seven innings in Game 5, Lester lowered his career playoff ERA to 2.50 in 119 innings pitched. And this postseason, he’s surrendered only two runs in 21 innings over three starts.

Part of the Dodgers’ strategy against Lester was to bunt, run and make him throw the ball. It’s no secret he has difficulty throwing accurately to first base. Yet after Enrique Hernandez walked on four pitches to start the bottom of the first, and after he took as big a lead as you’ll ever see at first base, dancing, taunting…he didn’t attempt to steal.

“I was trying to get into his head and get J.T. [Justin Turner] a good pitch to hit,” Hernandez explained. “He threw four straight balls to me that were not even close to the strike zone.

“If I tried to steal and was thrown out at second base, it would give him a break.”

The Dodgers’ lack of aggression cost them.

And it shined the spotlight right back at Kershaw, who will pitch Saturday on an extra day’s rest. There was some discussion regarding whether the Dodgers should have started him on short rest in Game 5, but they declined because Kershaw had pitched four times (including the relief appearance) in a 10-day span through his seven shutout innings against the Cubs on Sunday night in Chicago.

The Dodgers would’ve risked riding him too hard.

And besides, somebody else had to pitch at some point. They can’t start Kershaw and Hill all seven games.

So his plan is to show up at Dodger Stadium early Friday and get in his regular between-starts work before the team charter departs for Chicago.

Then, you figure, the next step in the plan is to show up Saturday night in Wrigley dressed in his usual superhero garb.

His degree of difficulty continues to skyrocket, the harder the Dodgers lean on him and the more opposing hitters see him.

“Pitchers definitely don’t have an advantage,” Kershaw said of facing the Cubs a second time since Sunday. “I don’t know if the hitters have an advantage. But pitchers, the more you see somebody, the more familiar you get with them. I mean, that’s true, for sure.

“So I don’t think there’s anything that you do to counteract it. I said this the other day, there’s no secrets in the game right now. There’s so much information. They know every pitch that I throw and every count and every situation. So it’s just a matter of not really focusing on that and just trying to compete every single pitch and execute every single pitch.

“You maybe have less margin for error facing them the second time. Just be better, I guess.”

How much better he can be following his seven-inning, two-hit performance Sunday remains to be seen.

But don’t underestimate what the Dodgers may do if Kershaw pitches them over the valley of death one more time Saturday and into a Game 7 on Sunday.

“This time Kershaw will pitch on zero days’ rest,” Gonzalez said, smiling broadly.

He was kidding. I think.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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Will Dodgers Regret Not Unleashing Clayton Kershaw on Cubs in NLCS Game 5?

You know that thing about momentum being the next day’s starting pitcher? The Los Angeles Dodgers are about to put that to an interesting test.

The Dodgers had all the momentum over the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series, responding to a Game 1 loss with back-to-back shutouts in Games 2 and 3. But then came a 10-2 drubbing at Dodger Stadium in Game 4 on Wednesday. The momentum is with the Cubs again.

And they have ace left-hander Jon Lester ready to take the mound for Game 5. He might have been opposed by Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ own ace lefty, if manager Dave Roberts had made the bold call of starting him on three days’ rest for the second time this postseason.

Instead, Roberts is giving the ball to Kenta Maeda. As he implied after Game 4, per Arash Markazi of ESPN.com, the situation simply doesn’t warrant going to Kershaw:

This checks out. It’s a best-of-seven series. The Dodgers and Cubs have each won two games. Roberts need not act like tickets to the World Series or tickets home are on the line.

Still, it’s not hard to guess where the Cubs come down on this matter. After going into Game 4 with zero runs since a five-run explosion in the eighth inning of Game 1, they breathed some life into their bats in Wednesday’s blowout. Facing Kershaw in Game 5 would have threatened to suck that life right out again.

He is Clayton Kershaw, after all. He has three Cy Youngs. He had a 1.69 ERA this season. Most recently, he shut out the Cubs on two hits in seven innings in Game 2. He also has a good track record on three days’ rest in the postseason, putting up a 3.21 ERA in four starts.

For his part, Maeda is not a bad pitcher. The Japan native put up a solid 3.48 ERA in his first MLB season this year. He struck out over a batter per inning and, per Baseball Savant, ranked among the leaders in average exit velocity at 86.0 mph.

The Cubs weren’t too scared of him in Game 1, however. They got to Maeda for three runs on four hits and three walks in four innings. 

That performance kept up a trend of not-so-good starts when Maeda only gets four days of rest. He had a 3.97 ERA in such situations in the regular season. When he takes the mound Thursday, he’ll be on four days’ rest once again. Cue ominous music.

“This time around, I think I can better imagine how I’m going to get these guys out,” Maeda said ahead of Game 4, per Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times. “I remember how each hitter reacted to a certain pitch, so I’m going to base off that when I pitch again.”

Simply being sharper with location would be a good idea. Maeda made mistakes in Game 1, and BrooksBaseball.net shows the Cubs didn’t miss a couple of them. Otherwise, they waited him out and took their walks.

Maeda is at his best when he’s working the outside edge of the zone with his fastball and getting hitters to chase off-speed. That’s not only where he gets his whiffs, but as Baseball Savant shows, most of his soft contact as well. 

Trouble is, the Cubs don’t do much chasing outside the zone. They did that at a smaller rate than all but five other teams this season. If they can force Maeda in the zone, they can beat him.

That’s not something Kershaw has to worry about most days. He works in the zone as much as any starting pitcher not named Rich Hill. He does that because he has the stuff to do it. It’s no wonder he silenced the Cubs in Game 1, not to mention all the other teams he’s ever stifled.

There’s also the long-game portion of this matter. If Kershaw were starting Game 5, he could be used in relief if needed in a Game 7 on Sunday. After what he did in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, that’s an appealing hypothetical.

But does this mean Roberts is making an obvious mistake by not starting Kershaw in Game 5? Not really.

As promising as Kershaw’s track record on three days’ rest may be, the Dodgers have no idea how he can manage two starts on three days’ rest within the same postseason—much less two starts on three days’ rest within the same postseason following an injury-marred regular season.

Make no mistake, these are scary unknowns. Scarier than any matchup nitpicks to be made about Maeda and the Cubs. Too scary to risk on a game that doesn’t need to be won.

And while getting Maeda a couple extra days of rest would be ideal, the fact he would be pitching away from Dodger Stadium in Game 6 may have rendered that moot. He had a 3.74 ERA on the road in 2016, compared to 3.22 at home.

Roberts is effectively gambling on that split. If it works, he’ll have Kershaw ready for the kill on regular rest in Game 6 back in Chicago on Saturday. If it doesn’t, the Dodgers could ask for a worse duo to pin their hopes of a comeback on than Kershaw in Game 6 and Hill in Game 7.

If the Dodgers were going into Game 5 looking to punch their ticket to the World Series or stave off elimination, this conversation would look entirely different. Either circumstance would have made starting Kershaw on short rest again awfully tempting.

But that’s not the situation. The Dodgers are not in a desperate hour. And as such, they can afford to roll the dice on a tough matchup in Game 5 if it means having Kershaw fully locked and loaded for a Game 6 that’s happening no matter what.

Not starting Kershaw in Game 5 may end up hurting the Dodgers. But it’s not going to kill them.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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Clayton Kershaw Saved from Another Year as Postseason Goat

Chase Utley saved Clayton Kershaw from being the goat. Again.

As far as the Los Angeles Dodgers are concerned, there was a happy ending to Game 4 of their National League Division Series on Tuesday. With the Dodgers’ season on the line with two on and two out in the bottom of the eighth inning of a 5-5 game against the Washington Nationals, Utley plated the go-ahead run with an RBI single off Blake Treinen.

After that, Kenley Jansen retired the Nationals in order in the ninth to preserve a 6-5 victory and send the Dodger Stadium faithful home happy and knowing Los Angeles had lived to fight another day—specifically Thursday, for Game 5 at Nationals Park.

But Kershaw? He presumably went home feeling relieved. Because it wasn’t long before Utley’s clutch hit that the Fox Sports 1 cameras had caught him reduced to this:

That’s the look of a man who (at least in a general sense) was not only painfully aware of that bottom number but also how much worse it had been made by recent events.

The top of the seventh inning started well for the left-hander. He allowed a leadoff single to Danny Espinosa but got Pedro Severino for his 11th strikeout and then Chris Heisey to fly out. All he needed was one more out.

It did not come. Instead, this happened:

  • Trea Turner: infield single
  • Bryce Harper: walk
  • Pitching change: Pedro Baez
  • Jayson Werth: hit by pitch, RBI
  • Pitching change: Luis Avilan
  • Daniel Murphy: single, two RBI

When it was over, the “ER” portion of Kershaw’s line score had ballooned from two to five. With it, his career postseason ERA went from an ugly 4.48 to a 4.83 mark that’s about as ugly as the public perception of his postseason track record.

It’s the latest cruel twist of fate October has thrown at Kershaw, whom most of the world knows as a three-time Cy Young Award winner and generally the best pitcher in the sport. And like most of the others, this one was made crueler by how smoothly things had been going.

Kershaw’s day started with promise. After holding out on everyone following an 8-3 loss in Game 3 on Monday, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts announced Tuesday morning he would start Kershaw on three days’ rest rather than put Los Angeles’ season in the hands of 20-year-old rookie Julio Urias.

“One, Clayton gives us the best chance to win,” Roberts said (via ESPN.com), “and No. 2, he gives us the best chance to go deeper into a game.”

The Dodgers needed the latter after getting only 7.1 innings out of Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda on Sunday and Monday. Had Urias struggled under the postseason spotlight, the Dodgers would have been doomed before they even knew what hit ’em.

For Kershaw, it was a shot at redemption under circumstances he’s fared well in. While one of them is remembered for a hanging curveball to Matt Adams, Kershaw’s previous postseason starts on short rest had each consisted of at least six innings and no more than three earned runs.

At first it seemed unlikely Kershaw would add another to the pile. The Nationals got to him for a run on 27 pitches in the first inning and tacked on another in the third. But he settled in after that, and the Dodgers offense got him three runs of breathing room.

Kershaw wasn’t at his sharpest. Brooks Baseball showed he was working up in the zone, where he could have been hurt. But he was sitting around 94-95 mph with his fastball, which climbed as high as 96 mph. He got nine swinging strikes on his heater and 12 more on his curveball and slider. When location fails, it’s good to have that kind of stuff.

This is where my copy of Hot Takes for Dummies says I’m supposed to write that Kershaw then let the pressure burst his pipes rather than turn him into a diamond. I’m supposed to write that he choked.

But, nah. What really happened was an unfortunate series of events that didn’t go Kershaw’s way.

Turner’s infield hit probably should have gotten Kershaw out of the inning. Turner didn’t put good wood on a curveball, hitting it just 83.7 mph, per Baseball Savant. If Corey Seager had been playing a step to his left or had gotten the ball out of his glove quicker, that would have been an out.

Then came the walk to Harper. It pushed Kershaw’s pitch count to 110 but didn’t feature a bad pitch and may have ended differently if he’d gotten one very close call:

Give Harper credit for working a tough at-bat, but don’t take too much credit away from Kershaw. The fact he was still making pitches after having thrown so many on short rest is admirable.

“A matter of will,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said (via Dodger Insider). “Kershaw was on empty. They knew it; we knew it. That was some battle.”

Once Kershaw was in the dugout, he was powerless to stop the horrors Baez and Avilan released. Baez needed only one pitch to hit Werth. Avilan failed two pitches into his lefty-on-lefty matchup. That their debacles—merely the latest in a trend well covered by Bill Baer of Hardball Talk—resulted in three runs should not to be forgotten when looking at the five runs on Kershaw’s line score.

Had the Dodgers lost the game and the series, there would be a “But…” to talk about. Utley made sure that didn’t happen, though, putting this game in a gray area as far as optics go.

Postseason legacies are defined just as much by memorable achievements and failures as they are by numbers. Had Kershaw’s line loomed large in a Dodgers loss, it would have been another one of his visible failures to carpe the hell out of the diem in October. Since they picked him up and carped the diem on their own, Kershaw’s performance didn’t go down as another visible failure. It’s more of a missed opportunity.

The same can be said of Kershaw’s performance in Game 1, in which he had to rough it through five innings to pace the Dodgers to a 4-3 win. The fact a series they were heavily favored to win is tied 2-2 has little to do with his shortcomings and more to do with those of his rotation mates.

That is to say it remains to be seen whether Kershaw will find redemption or grow another pair of goat horns in his latest trip to the postseason. If either happens, it will be in the National League Championship Series or the World Series.

For now, it’s a push. The Dodgers are still alive, and Kershaw’s postseason legacy is no better or worse than it was at the outset.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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Clayton Kershaw Is Back, but Dodgers Ace Has Kinks to Work Out

There was neither a red carpet nor a flourish of trumpets at Marlins Park on Friday night, but there might as well have been. For the mighty Clayton Kershaw had returned.     

… For three innings.

Out since June 26 with a bad back, the Los Angeles Dodgers ace was going to have a tight pitch count no matter what. The Marlins’ tough at-bats hastened the speed with which he racked ’em up, so he was done after throwing 66 pitches and allowing two runs on five hits. The Dodgers mustered just three hits of their own against Jose Fernandez, who struck out 14 in seven innings, before going down 4-1.

So, yeah. It wasn’t a prodigal-son-level return for Kershaw. But then, that’s what any rational person would have been prepared for after such a long layoff. It’s what Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt expected.

“Rick pointed out to expect him to be in midseason form is unfair,” Roberts said, per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. “We all know Clayton is going to expect himself to be dialed in. We’ll see. I think we all hope for the best and expect to see a lot of good things from Clayton. But I think the most important thing, the most encouraging thing is to make sure he gets out of the start feeling well.”

There are positive takeaways from the left-hander’s oh-so-brief return. After Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball reported Thursday that Kershaw is still “pretty banged up,” the biggest is that his back didn’t break down. He didn’t look like he was struggling physically, and he walked away unharmed when he had to make a tough play on a swinging bunt by Christian Yelich in the third inning.

And right out of the gate, Kershaw showed that the long layoff hadn’t robbed him of any electricity. Mike Petriello of MLB.com noted he came out spinning some A-OK heat:

Kershaw also featured some good breaking balls, and he wasn’t wild, having 46 strikes out of 66 pitches. With five strikeouts and no walks Friday, he has 150 strikeouts to just nine walks all season. The two runs he allowed only pushed his ERA to 1.89. On balance, his 2016 season is still worth gawking at.

It’s not going to have a happy ending unless he and the Dodgers go out on a high note, though. And that’s not happening unless Kershaw fixes the ills that plagued him against Miami.

Kershaw may have been throwing strikes, but his three-inning stint is a case study for the difference between throwing strikes and throwing good strikes. He had trouble hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal’s targets with his fastball. Considering he was throwing a career-high 63.1 percent of his fastballs in the strike zone before Friday, it’s not like Kershaw had this problem before he got hurt.

His breaking stuff, meanwhile, was a mixed bag. Here’s Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times:

Those bad breakers included two the Marlins whacked for run-scoring hits: a solo home run off a hanging slider by J.T. Realmuto and an RBI single off a hanging curveball by Chris Johnson.

In so many words: Kershaw looked partially like himself and partially like he had some rust.

I know—I’m also wearing my surprised face. His three National League Cy Youngs, his MVP and his numerous statistical achievements make Kershaw a pitching god among his peers, but a little over two months is a long time to spend on the disabled list. He made just one rehab start that lasted three innings and 34 pitches prior to his major league return, which should count as his second rehab start despite the hype.

The Dodgers can be cool for now. They have 22 regular-season games remaining, giving Kershaw space for up to four more starts. That could give him enough time to build up his stamina and find his bearings.

L.A. holds a 4.5-game lead (as of this writing) in the NL West that the San Francisco Giants seem incapable of erasing, so he could be back to his usual self in time for the National League Division Series.

It’ll be time to worry if/when Kershaw isn’t up to speed for October. Maybe his back will give out again. Maybe he won’t be able to get back in a groove. Or maybe both. One way or the other, it wouldn’t be good.

No one doubts the Dodgers can muster up some hits. With runs typically at a premium in October, though, they’re not going to go far unless they can pitch. It won’t be easy to do that without Kershaw. His absence would up the pressure on Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill. That’s not to mention L.A.’s bullpen, which went from a league-leading 2.83 ERA in the first half of the season to a 4.11 ERA in the second half.

Things would look different with a healthy and operational Kershaw in the Dodgers’ plans for the postseason. Cliff Corcoran for USA Today noted how well a trio of Kershaw, Maeda and Hill would match up against the Washington Nationals, who just lost Stephen Strasburg to injury indefinitely. That would give the Dodgers the chance to start off on the right foot.

And while having Kershaw in the rotation wouldn’t fix the Dodgers’ bullpen, it would shorten the bridge to Kenley Jansen on days he pitches. That plus their surging offense could allow for a deep trip into October.

However, Kershaw’s thud-like return to action is a reminder that all of this is theoretical until he shakes off the rust. The Dodgers didn’t need him to be his best right out of the gate, but they need him to get better as soon as he can.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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Clayton Kershaw’s Comeback Will Turn Resilient Dodgers into Elite NL Contender

The Los Angeles Dodgers didn’t merely tread water in Clayton Kershaw‘s absence. They went full Michael Phelps and splashed into the lead.

When Kershaw last pitched for the Dodgers on June 26—before his back betrayed himthey were 41-36, eight games behind the hated San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

Entering play Tuesday, L.A. sat in first place, 1.5 games up on San Francisco. 

That’s partly because the Giants have stumbled, going 14-26 since the All-Star break. But give credit to the Dodgers roster for showing resilience and to rookie skipper Dave Roberts for keeping the wheels on.

Now, the really good news for the Chavez Ravine faithful: Kershaw thew a pair of simulated innings without a setback on Tuesday, per Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times

“My guess is that Kersh will want to pitch in a major league game tomorrow,” said president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, per McCullough. “With the time he’s missed, my guess would be the next step would be a minor league assignment. I think it will take a little bit of time to build him up in a way for him to be strong through September and hopefully October, as well.”

The words “Kershaw” and “October” occupying the same sentence should leave Dodgers fans salivating.

There are no guarantees, obviously. This herniated disc has been a nagging bane for Kershaw, costing the three-time Cy Young Award winner two months and counting. Rust and recurrence are always concerns, even for the best pitcher on the planet.

A Kershaw revival, however, makes this Los Angeles rotation exponentially more dangerous. 

Rich Hill, whom the Dodgers acquired at the trade deadline, made his belated debut Aug. 24 after struggling with a blister, tossing six scoreless frames in a 1-0 win over the Giants. 

Japanese import Kenta Maeda has been the team’s most consistent starter with a 3.38 ERA and 148 strikeouts in 146.2 innings. And rookie Julio Urias has allowed just one earned run with 14 strikeouts in his last 12 innings.

Add Kershaw, and you’re looking at a potentially fearsome group.

He’s not the only Dodgers hurler on the comeback trail. Brett Anderson (blister), Scott Kazmir (neck irritation), Brandon McCarthy (hip stiffness) and Alex Wood (elbow soreness) are all working their way back as well, per Michael Duarte of NBC Los Angeles.  

Soon, the Dodgers could be swimming in starting pitching depth. That’s a best-case scenario. Given the raft of injuries the club has weathered so far, L.A.’s front office should be rubbing rabbits’ feet and knocking on the conference table until their knuckles bleed.

Even if Kershaw is the sole cavalry, though, the Dodgers will take it and smile.

The offense is clicking, posting the NL’s second-best OPS (.779) since the All-Star break behind shortstop and Rookie of the Year favorite Corey Seager, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and third baseman Justin Turner. 

The bullpen, anchored by All-Star closer Kenley Jansen, is tied for the best ERA (3.35) in the Senior Circuit.

Now, insert Kershaw. The Dodgers have gone 14-2 in his starts this season and 59-56 in their other games. His 5.5 WAR is tops among all pitchers, despite his protracted DL stint. 

We could keep lobbing stats at you, but what’s the point? Kershaw is great. Like death, taxes and gravity, it’s an ironclad inevitability, assuming he’s healthy.

That’s an assumption until we see him square off against big league hitters.

You can psychoanalyze his reportedly tearful reaction, as McCullough reported, to the trade of veteran catcher A.J. Ellis, which the New York Times‘ Tyler Kepner, among others, called into question:

You can point to his career 4.59 postseason ERA as proof he won’t necessarily carry the Dodgers to the World Series promised land, no matter whether his back is right. The potent Chicago Cubs, resurgent Washington Nationals and even-year Giants all lie in wait, after all.

Set that aside, though. Kershaw is a generational talent. The Dodgers have gained significant ground in the standings without him. They’re now poised to get him back.

Forget treading water. Think full splash ahead.


All satistics current as of Aug. 30 and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

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Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill on the Comeback Trail at Perfect Time for Dodgers

Just when the Los Angeles Dodgers have finally caught up with the San Francisco Giants, their starting pitching has gone and quit on them.

Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill, that’s your cue to come back and fix everything.

Both are on the comeback trail from injuries, and Hill in particular is making real progress. He has yet to pitch for the Dodgers since they acquired him and Josh Reddick from the Oakland A’s at the Aug. 1 deadline. But Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times reports the veteran left-hander is slated to pitch Wednesday:

Hill has been dealing with blister problems that have sidelined him since the middle of July. But in a 78-pitch simulated game in Arizona on Thursday, everything was green on his screen.

“Everything felt great,” Hill said, per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. “The ball came out really good, the velocity maintained, breaking ball was really sharp.”

Kershaw, meanwhile, has been out with a bad back since late June. But on Friday, he was able to throw off a mound for the first time in over a month. And contrary to the bad vibes that came from his last mound session, the world’s best pitcher was practically beaming after this one.

“I felt good,” Kershaw said, per McCullough. “I don’t know. Until you face hitters, you don’t really know for sure. I feel 100 percent right now, so that’s a good sign.”

Unlike Hill, Kershaw’s return is not imminent. Don’t hold your breath waiting for it. In fact, I’m legally obligated to repeat that. Seriously, don’t.

But the idea that Kershaw’s return could happen at all is a big enough development on its own. It wasn’t long ago that Jon Heyman was casting doubt on Kershaw coming back at Today’s Knuckleball. According to McCullough, the Dodgers now “hope he could start again at some point in September.”

Talk about a September call-up. It seems like Kershaw last toed the mound ages ago, but it’s hard to forget just how absurdly good he was in his first 16 starts. With an MLB-best 1.79 ERA, 16.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and other such fantastical numbers, the lefty was on his way to his fourth Cy Young and possibly his second MVP.

And don’t overlook what Hill could bring to the Dodgers. The 36-year-old journeyman put up a 2.25 ERA in 14 starts for the A’s, bringing his ERA in 18 starts since his re-emergence last season to 2.06. It all passes the smell test, too. 

Of course, Hill and Kershaw have been out so long that there’s hardly a guarantee that both will pick up right where they left off. There could be some rust. Potentially lots of it.

But no matter the amount of rust, there’s not a team in the league that wouldn’t roll the dice on two such dangerous arms at this point in the season. And if there’s one club that has no choice but to hope for the best, it’s the Dodgers.

The Dodgers are owed all the credit in the world for not letting Kershaw’s absence crash their pursuit of the Giants in the NL West. They instead did the opposite. As San Francisco collapsed out of the gate in the second half, the Dodgers surged. This past Tuesday, they finally took over first place.

But now the Giants are back on top again, having taken a half-game lead. And while they still have their problems, the Dodgers have come face-to-face with a big issue that we mentioned way back when: starting pitching.

As our own Danny Knobler pointed out, L.A.’s starters didn’t pick up the slack during Kershaw’s absence. They were mostly mediocre. Now they’ve become downright bad. After Brett Anderson paced the Dodgers to an 11-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday with six runs allowed in three innings, L.A.’s starters now have a 7.03 ERA in August.

This feels like a reckoning. Outside of Kershaw, the Dodgers rotation was a motley crew coming into the season. Five months later, not much has changed. Kenta Maeda has been a nice find, but Scott Kazmir has been up and down and Anderson, Brandon McCarthy, Alex Wood, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Julio Urias, Ross Stripling and Bud Norris have been a mixed bag of injured and ineffective.

As such, the only real surprise is that the Dodgers rotation hasn’t been a team-crippling liability. As Corinne Landrey noted at FanGraphs, Yasmani Grandal has done his part by framing everything for strikes. Otherwise, it speaks to how good the team’s offense and bullpen have been. The latter, in particular, is arguably the best in the National League.

With those assets being as good as they are, it would be hyperbole to say the Dodgers can’t make it to October without Kershaw or Hill at their best. They’re in a comfortable spot in the wild-card race as things stand, and the Giants aren’t going to run away and hide with the division race.

But after three straight NL West titles, simply getting into the postseason is a mere formality for the Dodgers. It means nothing if they don’t go far into October. If they can pair Kershaw and Hill with Maeda, their strong offense and (finally) a strong bullpen, they’ll have everything they need to do just that.

Again, it can’t be taken for granted that Kershaw and Hill will save the Dodgers. But if nothing else, the timing works in their favor. This far from October, there’s plenty of time for the two of them to get back on the mound and back in rhythm. Had L.A. gotten the good news a week or two from now, the clock would be ticking a lot faster.

Having Kershaw and Hill arrive at the last minute and leading the charge isn’t how the Dodgers drew it up. But they’ll take it.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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How Have the Dodgers Erased the SF Giants’ Huge Lead Without Clayton Kershaw?

A little after 1 p.m. Sunday, a Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw took the mound.

Fifteen minutes later, the Dodgers were down 5-0, and the pitcher not named Clayton Kershaw was done for the day.

By day’s end, the Dodgers—without Clayton Kershaw—had lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates, 11-3. Sunday starter Brett Anderson had a sprained left wrist. Rich Hill, acquired at the non-waiver trade deadline because the rotation needed help, had his Dodgers debut pushed back for a third time because of blisters.

It would be funny if it weren’t so predictable. I wrote them off six weeks ago, and I wasn’t the only one.

On second thought, don’t click on that June 30 column. The one where I said the Dodgers’ season could fall apart because of the back injury that sent Kershaw to the disabled list. The one I wrote when the Dodgers were seven games over .500—14-2 in Kershaw’s 16 starts and 30-35 in the 65 games he hadn’t started—and six games behind the first-place San Francisco Giants in the National League West.

The Dodgers have gone 21-15 since then and are tied with the Washington Nationals for the best record in the National League over that span.

As of Monday morning, they were one game behind the Giants in the West and a 93.6 percent bet to make the playoffs one way or another, according to Baseball Prospectus.

So the season didn’t fall apart when Kershaw went down. It didn’t even fall apart when Jon Heyman wrote last week on Today’s Knuckleball that Kershaw might not come back at all this year.

It hasn’t fallen apart, even though the Dodgers have used nine different starting pitchers since Kershaw was hurt. They’ve used 13 starters this season, second-most in MLB behind San Diego, Atlanta and Cincinnati.

Overall, the rotation has been as mediocre as you’d expect since Kershaw went down, posting a 4.82 ERA while averaging fewer than five innings per start. The offense has been good, but six teams in baseball have scored more runs than the Dodgers in that span.

So how are they doing it? How are they playing at what amounts to a 96-win pace without the great Kershaw, who was touted for much of the first half as an MVP candidate?


1. Building the Bullpen

As Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci first pointed out, the Dodgers are on a record pace in one significant category. Their opponents have a .202 batting average in innings 7-9.

That’s not just the best of any team this season, it’s the best of any team in any season over the last 113 years, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s play index, beating the 1968 Detroit Tigers (who won a World Series) and the 2001 Seattle Mariners (who won 116 games).

The Dodgers have used 20 different relievers this year, and they’ve regularly carried an eight-man bullpen. They’ve needed it, because their starters pitch so little and their bullpen pitches so much (only the Reds have more bullpen innings). First-year manager Dave Roberts has maneuvered it so well that only 35-year-old Joe Blanton is among the top 17 in the majors in relief innings pitched.

No Dodger is among the top 12 in relief appearances—proof that Roberts understands he can’t rely on just two or three bullpen arms.

Give Roberts credit, but also remember that a strong, deep bullpen is a trademark of Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations, dating back to his best Tampa Bay teams.


2. Doing It with Depth 

Fox Sports‘ Ken Rosenthal played up this angle, another one borne out by the numbers.

Unheralded catcher Yasmani Grandal has a .710 slugging percentage since Kershaw went on the DL, the best in baseball. Third baseman Justin Turner is in the top eight in the National League with 29 RBI in that time and has been key in a lineup where so many of the big hitters swing left-handed.

The Dodgers have dumped some big names since Friedman arrived 22 months ago, including Matt Kemp (Grandal was acquired in that deal), Carl Crawford (released with about $35 million left on his contract) and Yasiel Puig (sent to the minor leagues with a $7.2 million salary).

They’ve also played most of this season with Anderson ($15.8 million) and Andre Ethier ($18 million) on the disabled list and the last six weeks with Kershaw ($34.6 million) on the DL.

The current 25-man roster makes only about $113 million this year—more than Friedman ever had to spend with the Rays but hardly a big-market number. It’s working.


3. Managing Matters

Roberts works the bullpen and the depth but also gets high marks for the tone he has set and the clubhouse he has run.

Friedman told Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times:

“He’s been challenged as much as I can imagine someone being challenged in year one, just with the sheer volume of injuries. To handle it the way he has, in his first year, is incredible. I know manager-of-the-year banter doesn’t really pick up yet, but I don’t know how he’s not front and center in that conversation.”


4. Giant Problems

The Giants had the second-best record in the National League (49-31) when Kershaw went on the DL. Had they kept up that .613 pace, they’d have 72 wins and the Dodgers would be seven games behind.

Instead, the Giants opened the door. Because of injuries and poor play coming out of the All-Star break, they’re 17-20 since the Kershaw DL announcement.

Credit the Dodgers for taking advantage.


5. Semi-Soft Schedule

This one isn’t as much of an explanation as you’d think, given how top-heavy the National League is this season. The Dodgers’ 21-15 run includes 12 games against teams that are currently in playoff position (Baltimore, Washington, St. Louis and Boston).

They went 7-5 in those games.

Still, with the injuries that have hit the Cardinals, Miami Marlins and New York Mets, it’s hard to find five worthy NL playoff teams. The Dodgers have played at a 96-win pace with Kershaw on the DL, but they shouldn’t need to keep up that pace to make it to October.

They may need to have a shot at passing the Giants, who they meet for three games next week at Dodger Stadium (just before the Cubs come in) and six more times in September and October.

Even a playoff spot would be an accomplishment, given the challenges the Dodgers have faced and the forecasts of doom when they lost Kershaw. But for a franchise that has played in October seven times in the last 12 years but hasn’t been back to the World Series since winning it with Kirk Gibson in 1988, the goal will always be higher.

No matter what they’ve done over the last six weeks, it’s awfully hard to see them winning in October with the team they have now.

There’s no way they’re a World Series team without Kershaw. This time, I’m sure of it.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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Possible Clayton Kershaw Surgery Should Slam Brakes on Dodgers’ Deadline Plans

The Los Angeles Dodgers‘ 2016 season is riding on Clayton Kershaw‘s back.


The 28-year-old ace left-hander landed on the 15-day disabled list June 30 with “mild disc herniation,” per MLB.com’s Ken Gurnick. On Saturday, he suffered “a setback” during a bullpen session, per MLB.com’s Alex Putterman

Then, on Wednesday, manager Dave Roberts dropped a bombshell.

“I think that with the way it flared up, it’s more of an indication that surgery is more of a possibility obviously with the way his back responded, but we’re still hopeful that he will be back,” Roberts said, per ESPN.com’s Doug Padilla. “When you’re talking about the back, that is always an option, but we’re certainly hopeful that Clayton will be back, absolutely.”

There are enough caveats and qualifiers in there for Dodgers fans to cling to hope. But the club’s skipper just uttered the word “surgery” in connection with the best pitcher on the planet. 

That sound you hear is a lot of hearts rising into throats in Southern California. And until further notice, it should be the sound of the Dodgers slamming the brakes on their non-waiver trade-deadline plans. 

First, let’s quickly recap what Kershaw was doing before his lower back betrayed him: The three-time National League Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL MVP owned an MLB-leading 1.79 ERA with 145 strikeouts and just nine walks in 121 innings.

He hasn’t thrown a baseball that mattered since June 26, and his 5.5 WAR entering play Wednesday still paced the Senior Circuit.

The Dodgers have their flawson offense, at the back of the rotationbut as long as they had Kershaw, they had hope.

In fact, before Roberts uttered the dreaded S-word (no, not that one), ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick reported Los Angeles was preparing to go all-in on the trade market:

The Dodgers have the second-best farm system in the game, per Bleacher Report’s Joel Reuter, and they could dip into it to add a front-line starter, bullpen reinforcements, an impact bat or all of the above.

Crasnick floated Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Chris Archer, a power arm whom Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman knows from his time in Tampa Bay.

On a squad that features a healthy Kershaw, a move like that would make sense. As would acquiring a slugger like Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce to augment a lineup that is ninth in the NL in runs scored and tied for 10th in OPS.

Even after losing Wednesday to the Washington Nationals, 8-1, the Dodgers are in line for an NL wild-card slot at 53-43 and just 4.5 games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West.

The Giants, who are battling injuries of their own, have lost five straight coming out of the All-Star break. There is a path for Los Angeles to reach the postseason.

But that’s in a world where Kershaw takes the ball every five days. At the moment, the Dodgers don’t know if they live in that world or when they’ll live in it again.

The Kershaw-less state the Dodgers rotation resides in is a bleak one.

Japanese import Kenta Maeda has been a stout No. 2, at least temporarily casting aside the injury concerns that followed him across the Pacific and allowed the Dodgers to ink him to an incentive-laden contract. And Brandon McCarthy has shown flashes since returning from Tommy John surgery July 3.

After that, it’s a grab bag of uncertainty and mediocrity.

Lefty Scott Kazmir logged seven strong innings in his most recent start Tuesday against the Washington Nationals, but his ERA has hovered above 4.00 all season. Rookie Julio Urias is bursting with raw talent, but the 19-year-old southpaw has yet to find a consistent groove at the big league level.

Bud Norris, whom Los Angeles acquired from the Atlanta Braves the same day Kershaw landed on the DL, is a fifth starter at best. Hyun-Jin Ryu is on the shelf with elbow discomfort, and Alex Wood is out after undergoing elbow surgery.

Until they know if Kershaw is in or out for 2016, the Dodgers should hold their trade assets close. That “big-game hunting” Crasnick alluded to must transition to a wait-in-the-bushes approach. 

The ideal scenario would be Kershaw returning healthy before the Aug. 1 deadline, giving the Dodgers time to rekindle trade talks. 

But if his status remains uncertain, or if he goes under the knife, there’s simply no point in the Dodgers mortgaging their young, cost-controlled talent.

Would replacing Kershaw with Archer (assuming the Rays are willing to move him) help L.A.’s chances of sneaking into the playoffs? Sure. 

Once there, could it make a little noise with the help of existing stars like shortstop and NL Rookie of the Year front-runner Corey Seager? Perhaps.

But without Kershaw, there is no way this team makes a serious World Series run. Period.

Yes, Archer would be more than a rental, as he’s controlled through 2019. And there are other enticing non-rentals on the block. But why not wait and acquire one or more of them over the winter, when you’re not dealing from a position of desperation?

The Dodgers have had their share of early October exits in recent years. The goal for baseball’s biggest spenders is to break the franchise’s 27-year championship drought. Anything short of that will be a lukewarm letdown.

Friedman has exercised restraint since taking the reins in Los Angeles, adding big pieces but placing emphasis on bolstering the minor league ranks and avoiding shifting into panic mode.

If anything could change that, it’s losing Kershaw. But diving headlong into the trade waters would be a mistake. They’d be better off riding out 2016 and heading into 2017 with a hopefully healthy ace and all that minor league firepower waiting in the wings.

To restate it in stark terms: The Dodgers’ season is riding on Kershaw’s back. If he can’t carry the load, no one else can.


All statistics current as of July 20 and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

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