Plaschke: Thankfully, fittingly, Clayton Kershaw returns to Dodgers

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw reacts during a game against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 23, 2023.

When Los Angeles last saw Clayton Kershaw, his head was buried in his hands and boos were ringing in his ears.

His shoulder was shot. His postseason was shredded. He was surely finished as a Dodger. He was probably finished as a pitcher.

Kershaw trudged quietly out of Dodger Stadium that October night after giving up six runs to the first eight Arizona Diamondbacks hitters in a nightmarish playoff opener, his pitiful appearance draped with the saddest of questions.

Is this really how a future Hall of Famer was going to walk away?

Read more: Dodgers to re-sign Clayton Kershaw, ending talk of retirement or a stint with Rangers

Four months later, a resounding answer.

No. He’s not quitting. He’s not leaving. He’s not done with the Dodgers. And the Dodgers aren’t done with him.

Thank goodness.

More shaggy snarl. More biting curves. More standing ovations for walks to the bullpen. More “We Are Young.”

In a free-agent signing borne of both sentiment and common sense, the Dodgers and Kershaw agreed on a one-year contract with a 2025 player option Tuesday, allowing the pitcher a rare chance to rewrite his final chapter while probably ensuring that he will indeed retire in blue.

It’s big news. It’s good news. It’s news that actually might not mean much on the field until late next summer, but news that should have a clubhouse impact immediately.

While he won’t pitch for at least the first half of the season while recovering from shoulder surgery, Kershaw’s presence will immediately lend important stability to a remodeled team culture.

New starting pitchers Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Tyler Glasnow and James Paxton want to know what it’s like to be a Dodger? Just watch the guy who has been here 16 years.

New star Shohei Ohtani wants to know what it’s like to be a Dodgers leader? Just watch the guy who has been the cornerstone of a decade-long dynasty, a guy who has the Cy Young awards and the World Series ring that Ohtani lacks.

And when Kershaw, who turns 36 this spring, returns to the rotation? Hey, even when his shoulder was disintegrating last season, the guy could still pitch, with a 2.23 ERA in the last two months of the regular season before his arm collapsed in the playoffs.

Considering the injury history of many of the Dodgers’ potential starters, a healthy Kershaw could play a big role in this season’s stretch run. In the meantime, with just 56 more strikeouts, he will become only the third player in history to record 3,000 strikeouts with the same team, so he comes equipped with at least one built-in celebration.

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw.
Clayton Kershaw sits in the dugout before a start against the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 23, 2023. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

If he decides to pick up his option and play in 2025, he would then be in a rotation with Ohtani, and wouldn’t that be fun?

No matter how Kershaw ends his career, it will seemingly be here, and that’s just perfect, the Dodgers smartly retaining their cornerstone, their Kobe Bryant, a guy who should never play anywhere else, and probably won’t.

This move is equally as good for Kershaw, who some thought would sign with his hometown Texas Rangers, but who ultimately decided there was no place like his Chavez Ravine home.

To be fair, the World Series champion Rangers will already have two star pitchers missing chunks of next season while recovering from injury — Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer — and probably weren’t thrilled about adding Kershaw to that list.

Still, he could have retired. But he decided the Dodgers were a better option for many reasons.

He’ll be close to his legendary Los Angeles-based surgeon Dr. Neal ElAttrache. He’ll rehab under familiar team officials and without any pressure to rush back and save the rotation. And the Dodgers lineup is so loaded, this offers him his best final chance to win a World Series in a season not abbreviated by a pandemic.

Also, as much as anything, there was a sense Kershaw returned to the Dodgers because of unfinished business.

He couldn’t end his time here on that final start.

To recap, he led the Dodgers into their postseason opener after the gutsiest two months of his career, fighting through shoulder pain and weakness to help set them up with a first-round series against the seemingly overmatched Diamondbacks.

And 15 minutes later, it all went to hell.

Remember the crazy eight?

Double, single, single, double, homer, groundout, walk, double.

Those were the outcomes recorded by the first eight Diamondbacks hitters in the top of the first inning before Kershaw was mercifully pulled in an eventual 11-2 loss.

It was not only the worst start of Kershaw’s career — and he has had some real October clunkers — but according to ESPN Stats & Info, it was the worst start in baseball postseason history.

Afterward, his words were doused in remorse.

Read more: Plaschke: If Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers split, would that really be so awful?

“Disappointing, embarrassing, feel like you let everybody down,” Kershaw said at the time. “The whole organization that looked to you to pitch well in Game 1, it’s just embarrassing really, I just felt like I let everybody down.”

Kershaw basically doomed the Dodgers almost before the postseason started, as they were eventually swept in three games by the Diamondbacks in a series in which they never led.

He was promised an opportunity at atonement with a scheduled start in Game 4. He never got the chance. As another barren Dodgers winter approached, many wondered if he would ever get the chance.

Turns out, he will. Thank goodness.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.