Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw at peace facing uncertain future

Clayton Kershaw prefers not to think about it.

Nevertheless, the next month might be Kershaw’s last playing for the Dodgers, with the 35-year-old left-hander set for free agency — or, if he chooses, retirement — this coming offseason.

As such, Saturday night could be his final regular-season start at Dodger Stadium, if not his last time gracing the Chavez Ravine mound — though a home start in the playoffs next month seems increasingly likely.

Either way, don’t expect Kershaw to dwell on the possibility, or the Dodgers to stage some grand send-off.

“It’s just all about trying to win this year,” Kershaw said this week. “All the personal stuff is kind of out the door.”

Yet, while staring out at the ballpark he has called home for the last decade and a half, even the famously unyielding veteran couldn’t block out every thought regarding his uncertain future.

“You always think about last homestand, last playoffs, all that,” he acknowledged. “But I came to peace with it a long time ago.”

Indeed, Kershaw has gone through this before.

Ahead of his first foray into free agency in 2021, his season came to an abrupt end during the final homestand, when he reaggravated an elbow injury that sidelined him for the playoffs.

That day he trudged off the mound with a ball clutched in his hand. He received a rousing ovation from fans he’d dazzled for years. And as he descended the dugout steps, it seemed his time with the Dodgers perhaps was reaching its end.

Turned out, some of Kershaw’s best days in L.A. were still ahead.

Last year he not only re-signed with the club on a one-year contract — Kershaw plans to sign only one-year deals the rest of his career, knowing retirement will loom as an annual possibility — but also resumed his place as a cornerstone for the pitching staff.

He started last season’s All-Star Game — a career first — at Dodger Stadium. He eclipsed the club’s career strikeout record. And if not for a couple of back injuries, he might have been in the conversation for a fourth Cy Young Award, after going 12-3 with a 2.28 ERA.

This season has followed a similar script. Kershaw re-signed in the winter. He has remained one of the Dodgers’ most productive pitchers, posting a 12-4 record and 2.52 ERA while earning another All-Star selection. He reached another milestone, collecting his 200th win on an April night when Chavez Ravine showered him with more appreciation.

“This place is special,” Kershaw said that night. “Anytime you get to do something at home, it’s pretty cool.”

However, as has routinely been the case in the latter half of his Hall of Fame-caliber career, Kershaw’s health derailed his season.

After missing all of July with a shoulder injury, Kershaw hasn’t looked the same since returning in early August.

Clayton Kershaw and his son, Charley watch the Houston Astros take batting practice on June 25, 2023, at Dodger Stadium.

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw and his son Charley watch the Houston Astros take batting practice on June 25 at Dodger Stadium.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

His fastball is struggling to hit 90 mph. His command has been uncharacteristically off. Even his typically sure-fire mechanics have faltered, something that hadn’t happened during past bouts with injuries.

“He’s one of the most consistent pitchers that we’ve had, delivery-wise, since I’ve been here,” said Mark Prior, the team’s fourth-year pitching coach. “Even through all his back stuff the last couple years, he’s always maintained that.”

This time, however, Prior noted that Kershaw’s timing and sequencing “got messed up,” leading not only to the drop in velocity but also inconsistent command.

“With anybody, if you get hurt, or the arm speed changes a little bit, it’s just about trying to find the right balance, the right sequencing,” Prior added. “So, you make adjustments to adapt to what you can do.”

Kershaw — who still has managed a 2.42 ERA in six starts since returning from the injured list — predictably offered little insight into the process.

“I just want to get people out,” he said.

On the topic of his future, the 16-year veteran and proud father of four was more reflective.

While he conceded he occasionally ponders the decision awaiting him this offseason — the Dallas native also could entertain interest from his hometown Texas Rangers — he noted his feelings can “change all the time” and that “not until the season ends am I really gonna have thought about it.”

He said he tries to shy away from conversations about his future — and, by extension, his decorated Dodgers legacy — because “I don’t want the attention and all that. I think that’s the best way to go about it.”

Long ago, he declared, he accepted the reality of one day leaving the Dodgers, and eventually his pitching career, behind.

“If the last one was three years ago, so be it,” he said. “It’s been a great run regardless.”

His primary focus now, he repeatedly reiterated: “You just want to be a part of this year, winning the World Series. It’s either gonna be disappointing or it’s gonna be great. Then we’ll go into the offseason.”

Despite the recent decline in his stuff, Kershaw’s October role looks as important as ever.

He’s not only expected to be featured in the playoff rotation — albeit, with a potentially limited workload — but also could be in line to start Game 1, though manager Dave Roberts said pitching plans still are being finalized.

While the Dodgers hope Kershaw’s velocity will bounce back, they’ve been more encouraged by strides with his command, which seemed to improve near the end of a scoreless, four-inning outing in Seattle last week.

And, with another October on the horizon, it’s all leading up to a potential ride into the sunset, with Kershaw set to feature prominently in what could be the last playoff push with the only team he’s ever known.

“His body of work, as recent as this year, speaks to how much we trust and value him,” Roberts said. “For me, it’s just a matter of where he’s at physically. And if he feels good physically, we’re gonna run him out there.”