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Clayton Kershaw pitches simulated game as he prepares for his return

Of all the curiosities and oddities in baseball, this one has to rank pretty high.

For years now, the apprehension about a Clayton Kershaw injury has been the X factor with the Dodgers. How would the team hold up without its three-time Cy Young winner?

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With Kershaw expected to return within the next week, here is the surprising answer: pretty darn well. This is the third consecutive season in which Kershaw has been on the disabled list, and the Dodgers' record has been better without him than with him every time.

"I guess they don't need me," Kershaw said Saturday, wearing a hint of a smile.

In 2016, the Dodgers were eight games out of first place when he got hurt, five games ahead when he came back. In 2017, they went 25-10 without him.

In 2018, they played .500 ball without him — not great, but better than before, and they jumped from eight games to 3 1/2 games out, entering play Saturday.

"It's just a compliment to this team, and the depth we have, and the guys that can fill voids," he said.

"We always have a lot of guys on the DL every year, it seems like. Part of the culture around here is just a next-man-up mentality."

Kershaw pitched a four-inning simulated game Saturday at Dodger Stadium, reported no discomfort and said he "should be" ready to rejoin the Dodgers' rotation in five days if the team so decides.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said the team would wait to see how Kershaw recovers Sunday and how he throws his scheduled bullpen session Monday.

Kershaw could return on the last game of this homestand, Thursday against the Philadelphia Phillies, or Friday in Denver, against the first-place Colorado Rockies. In 20 starts at Coors Field, Kershaw is 9-4 with a 4.65 ERA.

In the three weeks since the Dodgers put him on the disabled list because of biceps tendinitis, Kershaw has focused on tuning up his mechanics.

"I've never really been a mechanics guy," he said. "The past few weeks, I've been working on it a little bit. It's probably the first time that I can remember that I've really focused on it."

Was there something in particular that motivated him to concentrate on his mechanics?

"Yes," he said.

Would he care to share?

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"No, I'm good," he said. "Thank you."

Rick Honeycutt, the Dodgers' pitching coach, said Kershaw's injury might have subconsciously compelled him to alter his delivery in an effort to minimize discomfort.

"He's really never had arm stuff," Honeycutt said. "Something was going on to make that flare up."

As Kershaw's fastball velocity has declined — down to a career-low 92 mph, according to Fangraphs — he has compensated with increased use of his slider and curve. Honeycutt did not say whether the injury might have affected Kershaw's velocity.

For now, Honeycutt said, he simply hopes Kershaw can get back to his trademark delivery, without pain.

"His mechanics have always been so good, and repeatable," Honeycutt said. "It shows that it doesn't take a whole lot to get something to flare up."

The Dodgers spare no effort in technology to help their players. At one point during Saturday's simulated game, as Honeycutt stood behind the mound while Kershaw pitched, Roberts hollered at Honeycutt.

"You've got to move back a few feet," Roberts said, "for the camera."

The Dodgers use a biomechanical device that, among other things, provides skeleton images that can be overlaid to see why a pitcher might be inconsistent in his delivery, reducing effectiveness and possibly increasing the risk of the injury.

Honeycutt had gotten within camera range, and the last thing the Dodgers wanted was for the camera to confuse him with Kershaw.

So Honeycutt took a few steps back, and the simulated game went on. Austin Barnes, Enrique Hernandez, Chase Utley and Cody Bellinger each took a few at-bats against Kershaw.

"I got to face Clayton Kershaw," Bellinger said.

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin

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