He showed up Thursday night out of nowhere with a summer sweat, an October glare and a left arm filled with hope.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Clayton Kershaw?
It was him! He’s back! The future Hall of Famer returned from six weeks’ worth of an unspecified shoulder injury to spin five strong innings against a weak Colorado Rockies team and leave the game with the only thing that mattered.
His health. He had it. He kept it. He was whole. He was upright. He didn’t stagger out hurting. He didn’t stumble out slumped. He was fine. The Dodgers were thrilled.
“I’m not going to lie, I was holding my breath a little bit throughout the outing, but it was fantastic, it really was,” said a mega-millions smiling Dave Roberts after a 2-1 victory amid many grateful ovations at Dodger Stadium. “Him getting through five innings the way he threw the baseball was fantastic.”
Granted, the Rockies have the worst record in the National League and fully half of their lineup was completely anonymous, but still … major league is major league. Dodgers starters have been embarrassed by less.
Bottom line, this was Kershaw’s first test since he disappeared in June and he aced it. He allowed only three hits on 67 pitches with four strikeouts and no walks. He had his control. He kept his cool. He rediscovered himself. It’s been a while. It felt like yesterday.
“It was great to be back,” Kershaw said afterward. “No fun to sit on the sidelines. You just want to be out there. You want to be a part of what’s going on here. You want to help your team win. It was a great feeling, good to be back out there, good to be at Dodger Stadium again.”
The last time Kershaw was on an official mound, it was June 27 in Colorado and he was complaining that his shoulder felt “cranky.” At which point, Dodger nation became downright grumpy.
Kershaw was given a cortisone shot and was only supposed to miss a couple of weeks. But, despite him saying he felt, “completely fine,” the Dodgers kept extending his absence until Thursday, which surely made even the sunniest of observers wonder.
Is he seriously injured? Are the Dodgers doing everything within their power to squeeze these last couple of months out of him because they know any medical procedure would cost him his season? Is he agreeing to this plan because he knows he is retiring?
Those questions will linger, and the true meaning of Thursday night won’t be known until Kershaw’s 35-year-old arm shows up in one piece on Friday.
“The big tell is how he comes in [Friday],’” said Roberts. “If he comes in … feeling good and sort of the natural soreness, then we’re in a good spot.”
A good spot? If Kershaw is really healthy and the midsummer break truly preserved his strength for the postseason and he keeps pitching at his current 2.51 ERA pace, they’re in a suddenly unbelievable spot.
In one curveball-like swoop, Kershaw can lead this scary offense to his second World Series championship while winning his fourth Cy Young Award.
“Just for me personally to be back out there, as long as I come back [Friday] and feel all right, that’s encouraging for me,” Kershaw said. “Definitely will feel great about that, for sure.”
When Andrew Friedman failed to land a standout starting pitcher at the trade deadline last week, this space predicted postseason doom. But if Kershaw essentially becomes that late-season addition, the Dodgers will benefit from the deal of the century.
“Any time 22 is on the mound, you have a good feeling about how the game is gonna turn out, and I think it’s a boost for everyone in this clubhouse,” said Max Muncy, who drove home both Dodgers runs Thursday with a homer and a bases-loaded walk. “Hopefully we can keep him for the rest of the stretch … it’s just fun to be on the same field as that guy.”
Kershaw’s presence indeed changes everything. He has always been important. But, considering he’s never been surrounded by such a rotation, he’s never been this important.
For most of his first 15 seasons here, he’s been backed up by other effective veteran starters, alleviating some of his postseason pressure. Not this year.
They mostly need Kershaw to stare down the Atlanta Braves. He can do that. He is 6-1 with a 2.49 ERA against the Braves in the regular season. In four postseason starts against them, he has a 1.73 ERA. He shut down the Braves on two hits in eight innings to begin the 2018 march to the World Series.
His postseason demons of a decade ago have mostly disappeared, and he has slowly grown into a calming October presence.
If the Dodgers want to vault past baseball’s best team and head to their fourth World Series appearance in seven years, they need that presence to be present. They can’t begin to match the Braves’ rotation of Spencer Strider, Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Bryce Elder without him.
When asked before the game whether it’s possible that the Dodgers need Kershaw more than ever, Roberts agreed.
“We do. We do,” he said. “What he’s done has certainly been very impactful on the field, off the field, he’s going to the Hall of Fame. But for this year in particular. … Clayton expects to be a big contributor. We need him to be that guy. … You never want to just put it on one player, but certainly Clayton feels a lot of responsibility given what he’s done.”
Afterward, one could tell that the usually stoic Kershaw was stoked about a responsibility fulfilled.
“I want to be part of it,” he said. “We’re playing great. Obviously we’re in first place. We’re doing a lot of things well. Obviously October, you want to be part of that more than anything, but yeah, selfishly you want to be part of it all. You want to do everything. Excited to be back and hopefully have a good six, seven weeks and be ready to go.”
Whenever Kershaw pitches during those upcoming weeks, undoubtedly breaths will still be held.
But for one night, Chavez Ravine was filled with a giant autumnal-crisp exhale.
Clayton Kershaw is back, and so is the Dodgers’ path to a championship.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.