Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw took turns pitching to Dodgers prospects Monday, and the early afternoon tranquility of an empty Angel Stadium was shattered by fastballs striking Russell Martin’s catcher’s mitt.
Encouraging words from the two pitchers, the catcher, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt followed the simulated game. The verdict was unanimous: Buehler and Kershaw both cleared the latest hurdle in healing from spring ailments.
Buehler was dominant in four innings, his fastball touching 98 mph, his off-speed pitches sharp. A changeup he’s been developing all spring froze Alex Verdugo for strike three. A short time later, Roberts announced Buehler will start Sunday against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the finale of the Dodgers’ season-opening four-game series that begins Thursday at Dodger Stadium.
“There will be an innings limit, I know how this works,” Buehler said. “But I’m ready.”
“It was a good step,” he said. “I threw all my pitches and I felt good.”
This Dodgers front office considers all options, and one was to permit Kershaw to start opening day and pitch one or two innings. As appealing it might have been for Kershaw to extend his streak of opening day starts, the notion was knocked off the table.
“That idea wasn’t what was best for him,” Honeycutt said. “It got to the point where you’ve got to do what’s right for the pitcher. (Roberts) just tried to bypass it.”
Back injuries hampered Kershaw each of the last three seasons, and last season he experienced shoulder discomfort. The shoulder inflammation he felt in late February was alarming; he stopped throwing for several days. The slow spring has made it impossible for him to work toward reinventing himself from a fastball-first flamethrower to a veteran whose effectiveness is based on guile and command of breaking pitches.
Developing an effective changeup that tails away from right-handed hitters has long been difficult for Kershaw. “As much of a feel he has for his slider and curve, he’s just never felt it with the changeup,” Roberts said. “He’ll get it. He wants to be good at everything he does.”
Meanwhile, Buehler has been working on a changeup of his own, a split-fingered pitch that can be filthy or can hang in the strike zone.
“Once he gets consistent with that pitch, it’ll be almost unfair,” Martin said. “The one he threw to Verdugo was nasty.”
Buehler, whose slow progress this spring was the result of an unspecified arm ailment, can’t wait for Sunday’s start. He threw 60 pitches in the simulated game and only two were hit hard.
“There’s something about a real game you can’t simulate,” he said. “I threw all my pitches, my velocity was there, the command was good. The next step is the big one.”
Left-handed starter Rich Hill was excited for Kershaw and Buehler but is on his own, slower timeline recovering from a strained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He threw on flat ground Monday. “The bane of our existence as pitchers is the injury,” he said. “I don’t want to rush back and tear it completely and be out for the year. Who knows how many days I am away?” . . . Veteran reliever Justin Grimm, signed to a minor league contract Sunday, pitched a scoreless sixth inning, giving up one hit and one walk. . . . Pitchers Dustin May, Stetson Allie and Kevin Quackenbush, outfielders Paulo Orlando and Ezequiel Carrera, catcher Josh Thole and infielder Daniel Castro were sent to minor league camp.