An idyllic Dodgers season skidded into familiar, harrowing territory Sunday afternoon. Clayton Kershaw, the left-handed anchor of the team with baseball's best record, revealed a hint of the vulnerability that sidelined him last season. His condition could have long-term ramifications as the Dodgers approach the trade deadline July 31 and the playoffs in October.
Moments before the second inning of the Dodgers' 5-4, 10-inning victory over Atlanta, Kershaw delivered a warmup pitch and felt "a little something in my back that wasn't normal," he said. He grimaced and attempted to gut through the inning. From behind the plate, catcher Austin Barnes noticed distraction flitter through Kershaw's eyes, as if concern about his body occupied his mind more than the threat of opposing hitters.
"He looks kind of messed up," Barnes said to umpire Ben May.
Barnes was right. Kershaw finished the inning and left the game. The Dodgers announced a diagnosis of tightness on the right side of his lower back. The words were vague enough to allow hope. Yet, a recurrence of back trouble still sounded ominous.
A round of examinations will determine the extent of the damage. Kershaw was bound for a visit Sunday evening with Robert Watkins, the team's back specialist. It was Watkins who diagnosed Kershaw's herniated disk in June 2016. After receiving a painkilling epidural injection, and a midsummer setback, Kershaw sat out 10 weeks.
The Dodgers intend to put Kershaw on the 10-day disabled list Monday, manager Dave Roberts said. He will be joined by blister-riddled pitcher Brandon McCarthy. The dueling injuries could intensify the team's pursuit of Texas ace Yu Darvish. The Dodgers had already shown interest in Darvish, according to people familiar with the situation.
Before Sunday, Darvish appeared to be a luxury item, a dynamic right-handed option to complement the left-handed trio of Kershaw, Alex Wood and Rich Hill. After Sunday, Darvish looms as a more pressing possibility. The playoffs begin in 12 weeks. If Kershaw requires a lengthy layoff, there will not be much time for him to tune up before the first round.
Faced with a reprise of last season's central dilemma, Roberts offered cautious optimism. He noted Kershaw did not feel shooting pain down his legs, as he did in 2016. Roberts described the current issue as "more muscular," rather than a condition involving a disk.
Kershaw declined to echo that sentiment. His lone hint at positivity was to say "some of the symptoms aren't as bad as they could be." Otherwise, he supplied limited insight.
"I don't want to compare, just because there's so many variables," Kershaw said. "I don't even know how to compare it, honestly."
His departure overshadowed the team's seventh walkoff victory of the season. Logan Forsythe delivered a game-winning single with the bases loaded in the 10th inning. His hit allowed the Dodgers to escape with a win on a day that still classified as a lowlight. After Kershaw left, Kenley Jansen blew his first save opportunity of the season.
Jansen surrendered a three-run homer to first baseman Matt Adams with two outs in the ninth. He had arrived in the eighth inning for a four-out opportunity. He yielded two singles before Adams crushed a 95-mph cutter down the right-field line.
The blast tied the score. Forsythe broke the tie an inning later. Chris Taylor led off with a single. A single by Justin Turner put runners at the corners. After intentionally walking Cody Bellinger, reliever Jim Johnson paid for a 94-mph fastball at the belt to Forsythe. The celebration could not offset concern about Kershaw.
"We won a game," Roberts said. "But we've got to make sure Clayton's fine."
As he recuperated in 2016, Kershaw revamped his workout routine to avoid unnecessary stress on his back. He had dedicated himself to avoiding a relapse. Before Sunday, Roberts remarked, Kershaw felt "100%." He had not missed a start.
"I've done countless, countless hours of back maintenance and rehab and everything, just trying to stay healthy," Kershaw said. "I felt really, really good up to this point. So there's definitely some frustration there."
Kershaw raced through the first inning on eight pitches. He looked less comfortable in the second. He secured two outs before facing catcher Tyler Flowers. Kershaw fell behind in the count when he spiked a curveball in the dirt and missed low with a slider.
Kershaw winced after he finished the slider. Barnes looked toward his dugout and jogged to the mound.
"It was on his mind, for sure," Barnes said. "He didn't want to hurt it more."
A crowd soon gathered. Roberts and assistant trainer Nate Lucero came out to visit. Roberts put his hand on Kershaw's lower back. With all eyes locked on him, Kershaw threw two warmup pitches and said he could stay in. He walked Flowers before striking out Adams on four pitches. His pace was measured as he walked off the field. He would not return.
"That sucks," Bellinger said. "You never want to see that, especially a guy like Kershaw."
Kershaw took a seat on the bench. He did not remain there for long. He pulled himself together and shuffled toward the clubhouse. Ross Stripling took the mound for the third inning.
It is unclear when Kershaw will take the mound again.
"We have a lot of good arms," Barnes said. "We're pretty deep. But you can never replace Clayton Kershaw."