The parameters of the assignment precluded Clayton Kershaw from answering any significant questions about either his present or his future. The Dodgers did not expect Kershaw to pitch for long on Saturday night at Citi Field. He did not. For three innings in an 8-3 victory over the New York Mets, he alternated between sharp and shaky, flaunting the wealth of his talent before displaying the rust of extended inactivity.
“Good to be back,” Kershaw said. “Now I can focus on getting better.”
Kershaw pitched on Saturday for only the second time since May 1. He had missed time with an arm injury and then with a back injury, idling as his teammates resurrected their season. He benefited from their performance against the Mets. The offense stood up to Mets ace Jacob deGrom and rookie pitcher Caleb Ferguson followed Kershaw with four innings of scoreless relief. Ferguson collected the first victory of his career.
The duel between Kershaw and deGrom never materialized. Kershaw required 55 pitches to collect nine outs. He gave up two runs and five hits. He struck out four but still struggled to finish at-bats. DeGrom gave up three runs for only the fourth time this season. He failed to reach the seventh inning for the first time since May 13; the Dodgers taxed deGrom for 112 pitches in six innings.
Max Muncy greeted deGrom with a titanic homer in the first inning. Chris Taylor came off the bench to smack a two-run double in the fourth. Four innings later, Matt Kemp delivered a pinch-hit grand slam to cap a five-run inning against reliever Robert Gsellman.
The victory sets the Dodgers (40-35) up for a sweep on Sunday. But it shed scant light on how Kershaw will rebound from his injuries. The franchise no longer rests solely upon his shoulders, but the team still expects him to carry a significant load into October. Kershaw insisted his body responded well to the challenge on Saturday.
“You pitch in a rehab game to make sure you’re healthy, right?” Kershaw said. “So I think tonight, same thing. Proved I’m healthy. Now, it’s just a matter of performance.”
Little has been simple for Kershaw this season. He dealt with declining fastball velocity all spring and into April. After an outing in Arizona on May 1, he noticed discomfort in his left arm. An MRI exam revealed biceps tendinitis. He sat out the rest of the month before returning on May 31.
That afternoon, facing the Philadelphia Phillies at Dodger Stadium, Kershaw flirted with mortality in dispiriting fashion. His fastball velocity sunk to 87 mph. He departed after five innings and underwent another examination. This one revealed a strained muscle in his lower back, a recurrence of an injury that cost him five weeks in 2017 and a reminder of the herniated disk in 2016 that foretold his future of back problems.
The Dodgers charted a sensible schedule for Kershaw’s rehabilitation. He passed all the usual checkpoints: Playing catch, throwing bullpens and appearing in a three-inning simulated outing. For his next hurdle, the team intended to send him to triple-A Oklahoma City for a rehab game. Kershaw prefers to pitch in the majors, but the organization felt he could benefit from pitching in a controlled environment after his lengthy time off.
The forecast in Nebraska altered the plans. The team noted the possibility of rain in Omaha, where Oklahoma City played on Saturday. The Dodgers elected to shift Kershaw’s outing to the majors. It never did rain in Omaha.
Manager Dave Roberts set reasonable expectations for Kershaw.
“How deep he goes, we have an idea that he’s not going to go too deep,” Roberts said before the game.
The Dodgers were kind enough to bequeath Kershaw a lead. Muncy ambushed a first-pitch fastball from deGrom. The pitch zipped over the plate at 97 mph. Muncy clobbered it and spun his bat into the dirt as the ball took flight. The solo shot landed a dozen rows deep in the second deck of right field.
Kershaw blitzed the top of the Mets order in the first. He dusted aside outfielder Brandon Nimmo with a gorgeous, 12-to-6, 0-and-2 curveball for a strikeout. His slider snapped the edge of the zone against third baseman Todd Frazier for a strikeout. Kershaw lumbered off the mound to fetch a softly struck grounder from second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera for the third out.
The inning looked like a breeze. His fastball velocity held at 91-92 mph. Both his offspeed pitches showed teeth. The Mets offered little resistance.
“For me, for us, having him out there is such a plus,” Roberts said. “And a boost for all of our guys.”
The evening would not remain idyllic for long. Misfortune awaited Kershaw in the second inning. Mets outfielder Michael Conforto doubled on a 91-mph fastball. Four pitches later, outfielder Jose Bautista ripped an 89-mph fastball into the left-field corner for a run-scoring double. Kershaw failed to put away the next batter, catcher Devin Mesoraco, before yielding in a 10-pitch walk.
When Justin Turner gobbled up a grounder to start an inning-ending double play, Kershaw received a reprieve. He could not rebuild momentum in the third inning, which required 25 pitches.
The inning started with an indignity. Kershaw watched deGrom punch a hanging curveball through the right side of the infield for a leadoff single. Two batters later, Frazier hit a well-placed infield single. With two outs, Mets first baseman Wilmer Flores chopped an 89-mph fastball for a go-ahead RBI hit.
“I gave up too many hits,” Kershaw said. “But I think I know what I need to work on.”
As Kershaw toiled, Ferguson warmed up in the bullpen. Ferguson prepared for the afternoon like a start, which he was scheduled to make, before Kershaw usurped him. Roberts let Kershaw finish the inning before calling upon Ferguson for the fourth.
“I didn’t have really much time to think about it,” Ferguson said. “I was actually scrambling around here today, asking the guys if I should go throw, or how do you do things out of the bullpen? But it’s the same game, regardless of if I’m starting or coming out of the bullpen.”
After Taylor toppled deGrom with his double, Ferguson spent four innings weaving through traffic. He gave up two singles to start the fifth, before striking out Cabrera and Flores, then inducing a groundout from Conforto.
In the seventh, outfielder Nimmo stung a line drive into center field. Cody Bellinger lost track of the baseball as it zoomed past him for a triple. Nimmo settled at third for a one-out triple. Ferguson kept him there by icing Frazier with a 94-mph fastball and getting a groundout from Cabrera. Ferguson finished his day with six strikeouts.