Clayton Kershaw returns from DL, could be headed right back

Torrey HartYahoo Sports Contributor

LOS ANGELES — Clayton Kershaw’s promising return from a month on the disabled list Thursday night at Dodger Stadium could have provided a morale boost for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but instead became a cautionary tale.

Kershaw left his start after five innings due to back tightness and will stay behind in Los Angeles for an MRI on Friday while the team travels to Colorado, manager Dave Roberts announced after a 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

“I saw that the stuff started to backup – the fastball, the slider, and the curve. Everything sort of tipped down a little from there,” Roberts said. “It was a combo: He hadn’t pitched in a month, stuff backing up, and understanding that the back tightened up. All of those things made my decision [to pull him] pretty easy.”

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Kershaw said post-game that as he rehabbed from the shoulder tendinitis that sidelined him, his back had felt “unbelievable” before today.

“I’m frustrated. I feel like I was out of the woods, feeling healthy, feeling good,” said Kershaw. “And then to have that crop up in the game, you obviously don’t know the severity or the length – you don’t know any of that. Extremely frustrating, for sure.”

Reminiscent of past injury

As Kershaw faces a possible return to the disabled list, you can’t help but wonder: if he had made a typical Triple-A rehab start, would his back issues have been worked out before taking a Major League mound again?

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw could be facing more time on the DL after experiencing back tightness Thursday night. (AP)
Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw could be facing more time on the DL after experiencing back tightness Thursday night. (AP)

It’s hard to know, because he does have a history of back injury. In 2016, he missed 2 ½ months with a disk herniation, and in 2017 he missed about a month with a less severe back strain.

“With Clayton’s history, there’s obviously some concern. You want to make sure that he is well and good, so we are going to dig into it and see if there’s anything to it,” Roberts said. “So right now we don’t know anything else.”

Kershaw acknowledged his past DL time: “If I can compare it to anything, I can probably compare it to last year, maybe feeling it. It might not be that bad, I don’t know. That’s just the best way I can describe it right now.”

Despite injury, still effective

Aside from the foreboding back tightness, Kershaw’s return was solid.

The only alarming factor was that his fastball sat consistently in just the high 80s, which might be written off due to his back. But save a couple of hard hits and a run early in the game (which video replay clearly showed should have been appealed), Kershaw effectively and economically shut down the Phillies offense – he threw just 62 pitches, allowing the one run, four hits, a walk, and five strikeouts in five innings of work.

He needed only seven pitches to get through the third inning, and struck out the side without throwing a single fastball in the fifth.

Kershaw’s pre-DL season ERA was 2.86 – great, if not excellent, by anyone else’s standards – and he sported a 1.14 WHIP and 9.82 K/9 rate through 44 innings. But Kershaw’s average fastball velocity in April was 91.9 mph, down from 93.1 during the 2017 World Series, pointing to a larger trend in his career trajectory.  

If his back turns out to be a minor issue — which admittedly seems unlikely — Kershaw could be on his way back to ace status, but part of the rehab process might involve a reckoning with just how he will maintain the title in 2018 and beyond. Perhaps his return marked the official arrival of Clayton Kershaw 2.0 – the ultimate stage of an evolution process that began on Opening Day 2018.

Alternatively, he will go back on the DL, and we’ll go through this again an unpredictable number of weeks down the line.

“Don’t feel sorry for me, or us, or anything like that,” Kershaw said. “I’m frustrated, disappointed I can’t contribute to the team obviously. Being on the DL’s no fun, so hopefully I get to avoid that. We’ll have to see what happens tomorrow at the MRI.”

Rushed back too soon?

There’s no question that Kershaw is at his most valuable on the mound. So valuable, in fact, that the team elected to skip an expected rehab start with the Class A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in order to get him back on the big league rubber at soon as possible.  

“For a guy that’s been around for so long and knows his body, he knows his stuff, and to go out there and give Rancho 4, 5, 6 innings – I’d rather have him give them to us,” Roberts said before the game. He added that only a select few pitchers are capable of ‘rehabbing’ on the biggest stage.

It appears that Kershaw, at least this time around, is not one of those pitchers.

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