A crowd of Dodgers officials gathered outside the visitors' dugout at PNC Park on Monday afternoon. They wore protective glasses and wide grins, gazing skyward over the stands along the right-field line, eyes peeled toward the day's solar eclipse.
Behind them was another site worth seeing: Clayton Kershaw on a big league mound.
Just prior to 2:30 p.m. EDT, the group of players, coaches and staffers returned their vision to Earth and sidled up behind the batting cage. They watched as Kershaw threw a 55-pitch, four-inning simulated game, a final tuneup before he starts a rehabilitation assignment on Saturday with triple-A Oklahoma City.
Kershaw, who has a record of 15-2 and earned-run average of 2.04, has not appeared in a game since suffering a strain in his back on July 23. He probably will rejoin the Dodgers next week if he completes his outing over the weekend without a setback. He would prefer to return before then, but he sounded willing to heed the advice of his employers.
"Health-wise, I could have pitched in the big leagues 10 days ago," Kershaw said. "But that's not the plan."
Kershaw has not hidden his zeal to rejoin the Dodgers. Team officials have stressed to him the necessity of caution. Given the team's double-digit lead in the National League West, plus the fear of aggravating the disk Kershaw herniated last summer, there is little reason to rush. The team misses its ace, but its record has not suffered. Heading into Monday's game against the Pirates, the Dodgers were 19-4 since Kershaw landed on the disabled list.
Kershaw is scheduled to throw a four-inning, 60-pitch outing with Oklahoma City, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. Kershaw has never before appeared in a triple-A game. He jumped from double-A to the majors in 2008, and has only briefly returned to the minors for rehab games.
Manager Dave Roberts indicated the assignment to the minors came at the recommendation of the medical staff. The team feels Kershaw should ease into the adrenalized atmosphere of a major league game. There is a progression that must be heeded, he said. In Oklahoma City, Kershaw will follow that path.
"The player obviously has a certain mind-set in what they can and can't do," Roberts said. "But sometimes, there's blurred vision from the player. That's what makes these guys great. But you have to defer to the experts, and that's the medical staff."
The prospect of Monday's simulated outing did not thrill Kershaw. He prides himself on the precision of his execution and feeds on the tension of competition. A lax setting like the one Monday is not conducive to his approach.
"Sim games are really hard," Kershaw said. "You try to create intensity, but you can't. It's really not a good recipe. I guess that's what you have to do."
Complicating matters was a dearth of available hitters. The team wanted right-handed hitters to stand in against Kershaw. The majority of those were unavailable, because they were in Monday's lineup, and Roberts did not want to subject them to the mental grind of facing Kershaw before facing an opponent. Enrique Hernandez was available. Chase Utley, a left-handed hitter who was in the lineup, volunteered. No one else could help.
To fill the void, hitting coach Turner Ward stepped into the box against Kershaw. Before the outing, Roberts said, Ward wagered on whether he could put a ball in play. He was not permitted to bunt. Ward amused observers by managing to squib a grounder that stayed fair.
"Fair was the key," Roberts said. "And he ended up winning the bet."
There was little other contact against Kershaw. Hitters often avoid swinging in these scenarios, but Hernandez hit a ball foul in the second inning and Utley lifted a fly ball into left in the fourth. Kershaw was able to throw all three of his pitches without difficultly, catcher Austin Barnes said.
"He looks like the same Kershaw to me," Barnes said. "He was attacking, aggressive with his moves. The ball was coming out really nice."
Kershaw was less effusive. He described the outing as "pretty average." After nearly a month on the DL, his disinterest in remaining on the shelf was obvious.
"You can't simulate a big league game," Kershaw said. "You've got to go do it."