LOS ANGELES — For much of Clayton Kershaw’s career, the Dodgers’ playoff fate rested squarely on his left shoulder. This year that prodigious joint has been tested like never before, but the iconic pitcher finds himself in a spot in which he’s quite familiar — starting Game 1 for the Dodgers.
“It’s probably a little bit more unconventional this year in how we got here,” Kershaw said Friday, “But nonetheless I’m still getting to start Game 1, so I’ll take it.”
It’s been a trying few months for Kershaw, whose expected short injured-list stint around the All-Star break instead turned into getting sidelined for six weeks with what the Dodgers officially termed left shoulder inflammation but it’s clear that doesn’t come close to describing the severity of the injury.
Dave Roberts acknowledged multiple times since Kershaw returned that the left shoulder was still affecting him, which showed in his stuff. Only one of his 105 fastballs thrown in September touched 90 mph, though perhaps that it came last Sunday holds some optimism. In the season’s final month, Kershaw averaged 88.6 on his fastball, compared to 90.7 mph on the year. That velocity decline cuts into his margin for error, so if Kershaw’s command is off, it could be a long day.
Kershaw’s work ethic hasn’t waned, but he’s made some tweaks to his mechanics and, at times, his pitch mix. Last weekend in San Francisco, he told reporters the necessity for the changes came from an “adapt or die” mentality, per Bill Plunkett at the Orange County Register.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve done something for so long, and the fear of ‘Why would I deviate, for potential failure?’’” Roberts said Friday. “But I think that the game, the hitters have shown him that to change — adapt, in his words — is not a bad thing. It’s a necessity.
“The great thing is that he’s seen good results. So in his mind, his process is always dialed. But results matter to Clayton. And so to get those results with the adaptation of routine, with how he goes about attacking hitters, all that stuff, has played into, I think, making him a really a complete player and pitcher.”
Kershaw has dedicated his career to the pursuit of getting hitters out, and he’s one of the best to ever do it. But that’s also meant pushing his body to the limit for well over a decade. He’s spent time on the injured list in each of the last 10 seasons, and has likely pitched through even more.
That kind of toll is a lot to ask of anyone, and it’s made Kershaw more reflective in recent years, like on Friday when he talked about making his 32nd career postseason start.
“The nerves never change. You still feel that no matter what,” Kershaw said. “I think the one thing that has switched for me a little bit is you use those nerves, but where are the nerves coming from? And I think at times maybe in the past I had a fear of failure and didn’t want to go out there and fail.
“I think now it’s just a lot more positive. It’s just the nerves are from an excitement to get to pitch in the playoffs, to get to be a part of it, to be in this moment that a lot of people in the game don’t get to be in. I think that’s where the nerves come from now. And I think that’s a better place.”
Kershaw since returning from the IL has a 2.23 ERA in 36⅓ innings over eight starts. His peripherals aren’t great — an uncharacteristic 11-percent walk rate and a 5.40 FIP — but he’s allowed more than two runs once in his seven starts that weren’t shortened by rain. Those are the results Roberts was talking about.
The Dodgers have also utilized the full roster over the last two months, and spread out Kershaw’s starts, getting at least five days of rest in every start since returning from the IL, and at least six days in his last four starts.
He’ll start on six days of rest again in Game 1, his fourth Saturday start in a row.
“It really messes up my college football watching,” Kershaw joked.
The Dodgers don’t need Kershaw to pitch on three days rest anymore, like he did in four consecutive Division Series from 2013-16 — he had a 3.16 ERA in those starts with 34 strikeouts in 25⅔ innings, by the way. They will probably ask him to pitch on four days rest if the NLDS gets to Game 4, but Roberts, general manager Andrew Friedman, and Kershaw are all confident he can do it, even though he hasn’t since May 21.
“I’ll be ready to go. Things will change a little bit, obviously a little less rest, but I think that’s what we had to do to make the regular season work,” Kershaw said. “We’re going to do the same in the postseason. We’re going to make it work however I need to. I’ll be ready.”
When Kershaw takes the mound Saturday, he’ll join shortstop Pee Wee Reese as the only Dodgers to appear in the postseason 15 years after their first postseason game. Reese played in seven World Series between 1941 and 1956 for Brooklyn.
Kershaw made his first postseason appearance in relief, getting five outs in a scoreless relief outing in Game 2 of the 2008 NLDS against the Phillies. Kershaw reminisced on Friday about how, at 20 years old, he was in the bullpen that October along with 42-year-old Greg Maddux.
Now it’s Kershaw dispensing the wisdom, and he’s got plenty of pupils. The Dodgers could have four rookies on their NLDS roster — Bobby Miller will start Game 2, Ryan Pepiot could pitch in some capacity in Game 3, while Emmet Sheehan and Michael Grove might be used in relief.
Kershaw offered a dose of perspective on Friday.
“I think for the past however many years to get to be in the postseason, I’ve become more grateful for it,” Kershaw said. “I just look at some of the things that have happened and the things that I’ve gotten to be a part of — and not all has been positive, obviously, but I wouldn’t change it.
“I’d much rather fail on the biggest stages than not to get to be here at all. It’s a special thing to get to be in the postseason.”
Kershaw will take center stage again on Saturday night.