Sheer will. That’s the best way Dave Roberts could explain Clayton Kershaw’s last two months.
Since suffering a shoulder injury in late June, Kershaw has not possessed the typical dominance that has defined his decorated Dodgers career.
His fastball struggles to hit 90 mph. His command has gone absent at times. His mechanics, unaffected by his multitude of previous injuries, have gotten out of sync.
Yet, in the 16th (and potentially final) year of his Hall of Fame-caliber career, Kershaw crossed the finish line in a flurry.
Even without his best stuff, he gave up no more than three runs in his final eight starts after returning from the injured list in early August — including outings of one run or none in six of them.
Despite his physical limitations, he remained the Dodgers’ most consistent starting pitcher, finishing the year with the best marks among a patchwork rotation in wins (13), ERA (2.46) and innings (131⅔ )
And after Kershaw finished his regular season with a 5⅓-inning, two-run start Saturday against the San Francisco Giants, Roberts all but bestowed upon Kershaw the biggest honor of all, starting Game 1 of the NL Division Series next Saturday.
“It’s pretty academic,” Roberts said. “I expect him to come out of this feeling well, given his demeanor and how he felt after the game. And if that’s the case, then it seems like pretty much a no-brainer.”
While that has appeared to be the case for weeks, Kershaw’s performance all but cemented it. Though he took the loss in the team’s 2-1 defeat, he continued to display strides with his once-diminishing stuff.
He had five strikeouts and 10 swing-and-misses, his most whiffs in a game since June 20.
He showcased a slight uptick in fastball velocity, averaging 88.8 mph and topping out at 90.1 (both his best this month).
He methodically mowed through the Giants’ right-handed-heavy lineup, in part by mixing in a changeup he seldom used before his injury.
And though it still was a far cry from his prime years, when he sat in the mid-90s and overpowered hitters with his premium arsenal of sliders and curveballs, Kershaw agreed with Roberts’ assessment that it was the best he’s looked in the last couple of months.
“Honestly when I came back I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Kershaw, who missed more than a month in the middle of the year. “But I think, give Doc a lot of credit. He’s handled it really well, giving me some extra days to kind of get my feet under me. Now I feel pretty good. I feel I’m kind of turning a corner health-wise and feel good. So ready for the next one.”
How would Kershaw feel about that next one coming in the NLDS opener — which would be the sixth of his career and first since 2017?
“Whenever it is, I’m just excited to get to do it,” Kershaw said. “With the way this year kind of went, I didn’t really expect to be in this spot for a lot of reasons. But it’s here and if that happens, I’ll be ready.”
It doesn’t mean the Dodgers (99-62) will lean on Kershaw the way they once did in laborious October campaigns, when he routinely pitched on short rest and blew past 100 pitches.
Instead, Roberts said getting about five innings and/or 80 pitches from Kershaw is “what we need from him.”
“I don’t think we need any more,” Roberts added.
As such, Roberts sent Kershaw back to the mound in the sixth inning Saturday for the first time since he returned from the injured list.
While it resulted in the Giants’ rally — Kershaw walked the first two batters with the score tied 1-1, then ended his night by inducing a potential inning-ending double-play ball that was booted by third baseman Max Muncy, allowing the go-ahead run to score — it also enabled Kershaw to extend his workload to 83 pitches, another high mark since his return.
“It’s been quite some time since we got him into the sixth, so I just felt that was something he needed … for the psyche part of it,” Roberts said.
Added Kershaw, in agreement: “In the postseason, every pitch really isn’t a pitch. It’s like a pitch and a quarter, a pitch and a half. So sometimes getting your pitch count up and going back out there for the sixth can make a difference, just endurance-wise.”
Really, the last two months have become an endurance test for the 35-year-old, challenging his ability to fight through his shoulder troubles and maintain a standard of performance the Dodgers are counting on in the playoffs.
Whatever comes after that is uncertain.
Whether Saturday was Kershaw’s final regular-season start remains an unknown. But the fact Kershaw has made it this far this fall has become an unexpected feat of its own, one that has left the short-handed Dodgers incredibly thankful — if not a bit stunned.
“It’s just will,” Roberts said. “He just finds a way to do his job, and do it well. So I just marvel at him.”