Between now and the end of the season, every game Clayton Kershaw pitches like the Clayton Kershaw of old will make the Dodgers feel a step closer to a day of which they have long dreamed — and also long feared.
This is the great irony of this Dodgers season, how performances by Kershaw required for them to win the World Series could result in them losing their most important player of the last decade.
So, as Los Angeles anticipates a steroid-free version of Mannywood, celebrates Matt Kemp’s return and welcomes Kenley Jansen from the bullpen with primal roars, the city should also be mindful that the starts Kershaw makes over the next few weeks could be the last for the Dodgers.
This could really be it.
Kershaw has steadfastly refused to speak about his possible free agency in detail, but Dodgers management wants him to stay beyond this season, with everyone from principal owner Mark Walter to president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman having made that clear.
Thoughts of his departure had receded to the background in recent months, as a couple of visits to the disabled list earlier this year reinforced the perception that the 30-year-old Kershaw was a broken down pitcher. Broken pitchers don’t void the last two years of a contract that guarantee them another $65 million, something Kershaw has the right to do at the end of this season.
Well, it’s time to be worried again — and, at the same time, upbeat.
Kershaw appears healthy entering his first start after the All-Star break, which will be Saturday at Miller Park against the Milwaukee Brewers. In recent weeks, he looked recovered from the biceps tendinitis and lower back strain that sidelined him for the majority of the previous two months.
He was strong enough to complete six or more innings in each of his last three starts. He threw 108 pitches over 6 2/3 innings of his most recent start, a no-decision against the Angels.
His fastball velocity remained a tick or two down from where it was in previous seasons. That, combined with increased concerns about his durability, have raised questions about whether his best days are behind him.
And while Kershaw might never have another 200-inning season again — his most recent was in 2015, when he pitched 246 1/3 innings between the regular season and playoffs — he is still the pitcher the Dodgers want on the mound when the stakes are the highest.
He still has a 2.74 earned-run average in 13 starts.
His failure to protect leads of four and three runs against the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the World Series might be what is most remembered about his latest postseason, which is understandable. The series turned on that game.
But it would also be a mistake to let that loss completely obscure what was probably the best playoff performance of his career, when he limited the Astros to one run over seven innings in a Game 1 triumph. He threw only 83 pitches, held the Astros to three hits and struck out 11.
Kershaw also won his three postseason starts before that, including the clincher over the Chicago Cubs in the National League Championship Series.
The performances followed a regular season similar to this one, in which Kershaw was sidelined for five weeks with a back injury. Then, too, there were questions about what he could still provide the Dodgers.
If this season ends similarly, or better, than the last, who is to say there won’t be more than $65 million available to him on the free-agent market?
As much as the free-agent market has cratered in recent winters, frontline pitching remains at a premium.
Yu Darvish was 31 and had a checkered medical history when he became a free agent last year. He wasn’t considered to be on the same level as Kershaw. He nonetheless managed to land a six-year, $126-million contract from the Cubs.
What complicates the situation for the Dodgers is that Kershaw has value to them that extends beyond the field. He has defined the culture of the team’s pitching staff for nearly a decade. Jansen is a reliever, but even he has said he follows Kershaw’s lead.
Kershaw is the ultimate example of a homegrown player for an organization that champions player development. And in a period marked by constant roster turnover, he could be the rare player to spend his entire career with a single team. Fans value such long-standing bonds with players, evidenced in recent seasons by the popularity of Kemp and Andre Ethier.
Concerns about Kershaw’s health date back to at least 2012, when he experienced hip problems. He avoided surgery then and has continued to do so after spending extended time on the disabled list in four of the last five seasons.
He’s been here before, so don’t bet against him.
Come this winter, the smart money is on Kershaw’s future being determined by what the left-hander wants, not what medical reports dictates. Maybe he wants to stay. Maybe he doesn’t. If anyone knows, they’re not saying.