The toughest obstacle Clayton Kershaw faced Friday night appeared about 15 minutes after a 1-0 victory over the San Diego Padres. As Kershaw stood before a group of reporters, after six scoreless innings in his first outing for the Dodgers since July 23, a potato chip lodged in his throat. He sputtered to clear it, once, twice, before yielding to his opponent.
“Is this live?” Kershaw asked, his face reddened by his cough and his smile.
Kershaw handled his opposition earlier in the evening with ease. He struck out seven and appeared unfazed by his time on the disabled list nursing a strained back. He spun an abbreviated gem, exiting only because of the Dodgers’ decision to gently ease him back into big-league competition.
Kershaw faced little adversity. He permitted two infield singles. He walked none. His outfielders did not field the baseball once. His employers can breathe easier about October — Kershaw looked like Kershaw. He was pleased with his efficiency, which allowed him to last one inning longer than intended.
“I didn’t expect him to be that sharp,” manager Dave Roberts said. “But you can never underestimate him.”
The victory ended a five-game losing streak, the longest of the season for the Dodgers (92-41). Kershaw (16-2, 1.95 ERA) played a familiar role. His team has not lost one of his starts since May 1. Chase Utley provided the game’s only run with a two-out RBI single in the sixth. The bullpen helped out, with Kenley Jansen getting the save.
“You never truly know until you get back on a big-league mound and get big-league hitters out,” Kershaw said. “So tonight was definitely a good step in the right direction.”
Kershaw’s return coincided with the internal schedule the Dodgers produced after the first examination of his back. The initial diagnosis suggested he would require four to six weeks of rehabilitation. Kershaw refuted the existence of a timetable when it was reported by news outlets, including The Times. He ended up missing 40 days, just shy of six weeks.
Roberts planned to monitor Kershaw’s efficiency, as he was slated to last around five innings with a negotiable pitch count of 75, while studying the sharpness of his slider. When Kershaw returned from his injury in 2016, sometimes he could not generate the proper depth on the pitch. Roberts watched Kershaw’s last three bullpen sessions, and felt confident in the precision of Kershaw’s arsenal.
“I don’t expect him to be on point all night long,” Roberts said. “But we expect him to go out there and compete.”
Kershaw aimed for a higher plane than mere competence. The first batter he faced was Padres outfielder Manuel Margot. Margot chipped a grounder that skipped over Utley’s bare hand for an infield single. Kershaw responded by retiring the next 12 batters he faced.
“He was on point,” Roberts said. “Competitive. Efficient.”
As he dominated on the mound, Kershaw’s teammates struggled to solve San Diego starter Dinelson Lamet. When Kershaw singled in the fifth inning, after a walk by rookie outfielder Alex Verdugo in the second plate appearance of his career, it was only the Dodgers’ second hit of the evening. Lamet responded by striking out Chris Taylor and Curtis Granderson to strand both runners.
Kershaw treated a relative threat with similar ease in the bottom of the inning. Solarte singled on a grounder into the hole on the left side of the infield. Taylor fielded it, but could not make a throw in time. Kershaw did not waver. He froze outfielder Jabari Blash with an 0-2 fastball, fanned third baseman Cory Spangenberg with a slider and ended the inning on a groundout from catcher Austin Hedges.
Kershaw had thrown 59 pitches. In the days leading up to the outing, Roberts framed the five-inning, 75-pitch guidelines as a rough outline. The team would adapt based on how Kershaw looked. And so Kershaw watched from the hole, with two outs in the top of the sixth, as Utley stroked a two-out RBI single to break through against Lamet.
There was no drama in the bottom of the sixth. Kershaw induced a pair of groundouts sandwiched around Margot’s pop-up. He had thrown 70 pitches. There was no need to throw any more.
“It’s nice to have him back, and feeling healthy,” Utley said. “He looked like he really didn’t skip a beat, to be honest with you.”
Follow Andy McCullough on Twitter @McCulloughTimes