Ace race: Dodgers lose Clayton Kershaw, Cardinals gain Chris Carpenter in NL wild card race

David Brown

The last available spot in the NL playoff field might come down to the health of an ace.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, who trail the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card race by a game, are bracing for news that Clayton Kershaw might be out until at least May because of right hip surgery. Kershaw, who was scratched Sunday from a start and has been dealing with pain for about a week, will find out for sure when he gets a second opinion Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals have announced that Chris Carpenter will make his first start of the season Friday against the Chicago Cubs. He hasn't pitched since Game 7 of the World Series because of thoracic outlet syndrome, a career-threatening condition which required surgery in July that included the removal of a rib.

Talk about a reversal of late-season fortune. But no matter what happens in the pennant race, the Kershaw news has the potential to be a colossal long-term bummer.

Call it being prudent, pragmatic, conservative, safe — whatever — the Dodgers must be frightened out of their wits right now. Hip injuries are better than elbow injuries, which are better than shoulder injuries. But then there's hip injuries like with Bo Jackson or, to be a little more obscure, Britt Burns way back in the day. He was a big ol' lefty like Kershaw whose career with undone because of a hip problem. It's just ... scary. Kershaw, the reigning NL Cy Young winner, is 24 and perhaps the best young pitcher out there today.

In the meantime, reports the Dodgers will do this:

Manager Don Mattingly said Kershaw won't pitch if there's any chance of further damage, no matter how important the game.

"I promise you that," Mattingly said.

He announced that rookie Stephen Fife will start Sunday, and the Dodgers will try a four-man rotation as days off allow.

Carpenter is 37 and was thought to have possibly pitched his last game. But he is one tenacious dude. And he's had enough success in simulated games that he's ready to give the Cardinals two or three starts in another pennant race:

"I went into [surgery] strong enough and knew that if I came out of it strong enough, I thought there was a chance," Carpenter said. "My goal the whole time was to be prepared to let these guys know how I felt at the end of the season so they could go into the offseason knowing what they could count on me for next season."

It wasn't until mid-August that it became obvious that Carpenter looked not like a pitcher preparing for spring training, but as one readying himself for the immediate.

Teammate Skip Schumaker said he doesn't care if Carpenter gives up 10 runs in his first outing, "because his presence alone" is enough to inspire. Well, I don't know about TEN runs, but he's a reminder of what will can accomplish. The Cardinals should hope for three or four runs and go from there.

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