In Clayton Kershaw, Dave Roberts trusts. The Dodgers manager made that abundantly clear after the veteran left-hander’s most recent rocky start, when Kershaw was roughed up for four runs and eight hits, including three home runs, in six innings of Friday night’s win over Colorado.
“With Clayton, I feel really good that when the bell rings for the postseason he’s gonna be locked and loaded,” Roberts said. “For me, if he’s feeling strong, I’ll trust that the results will be there.
“Yeah, he’s given up some solo homers, but when he needs to limit damage, he does that. When he needs to make a pitch, he does that. Clayton is going to be more than fine.”
Those words probably won’t soothe the segment of the Dodgers fan base that is well aware of Kershaw’s shaky postseason track record and can’t help but wonder: Is Roberts’ faith warranted?
Kershaw rebounded from a three-start losing streak when he gave up two earned runs and four hits in 6 1/3 innings of a 9-2 win over the New York Mets on Sept. 13. But he regressed Friday and is not trending in the right direction as the playoffs approach.
Kershaw is 3-3 with a 5.24 earned-run average over 34 1/3 innings in his last six starts in which opponents have hit .262 with a .921 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. Most alarming, he has given up 13 home runs during that span.
The three-time National League Cy Young Award winner was 12-2 with a 2.63 ERA in his first 21 starts this season, limiting opponents to a .218 average, .615 OPS and 15 home runs.
Kershaw got two quick outs in the first inning Friday night before giving up solo home runs to Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon. He gave up a run and three hits in the second, and a solo home run to Garrett Hampson in the fourth. His pitch count hit 46 after two innings and 82 after four innings.
Though he gave up one hit over his final two scoreless innings, Kershaw’s assessment of his performance was harsh.
“Not a lot of good tonight on my part,” he said. “Pretty bad all the way around. Command-wise, stuff-wise, crispness, everything wasn’t very good. I don’t know why. But I have one more [regular-season start] to figure it out before the real thing gets going. So I’m thankful for that.”
Kershaw, 31, is perplexed by his troubles out of the gate. Of the career-high 28 home runs he has given up this season, 10 have come in the first inning. His 6.00 ERA in the first (18 earned runs in 27 innings) is almost double that of his ERA in each of the other innings.
Asked whether he could pinpoint a reason for his rough starts, Kershaw said, “No.”
Is he searching for an answer?
“No, not particularly,” Kershaw said. “Make better pitches, I guess.”
Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt is wary about shining too much of a light on the first inning.
“If anything, if you think about it too much it becomes more in your head than what you want,” Honeycutt said. “If there was any one thing that jumped out, we would address it. He obviously knows what he’s doing. He’s been good at it for a long time. He’s just trying to get better every time he goes out.”
That hasn’t necessarily benefited Kershaw, a creature of habit who has followed the same routine between starts for years — and that he prefers to complete in four days.
Kershaw is 4-2 with a 2.35 ERA in eight starts on regular four days rest this season, limiting opponents to a .210 average, .596 OPS and six home runs. He is 5-3 with a 4.07 ERA in 12 starts on five days rest, yielding a .256 average, .797 OPS and 16 home runs.
Of Kershaw’s last six starts, one was on four days rest, three were on five days rest and two were on six days rest. His final regular-season start, scheduled for Thursday in San Diego, will be on five days rest.
“With a guy like Clayton, sometimes the extra rest is not always the best thing,” Honeycutt said. “Because we had the luxury of doing it, we made sure he had the extra day for a long time. Then you turn around, and he hasn’t pitched for a week twice.
“Today’s player, we get into our own rhythm, our schedule, and then when you get out of that just a little bit, it can disrupt you. There’s no perfect world, I guess, is what I’m saying.”
Kershaw’s velocity was down a tick Friday night from his previous start, his fastball averaging 89.7 mph compared to 90.4 mph against the Mets on Sept. 13 and his slider averaging 85.8 mph, down from 86.7 mph against the Mets.
But Kershaw has adjusted to, and learned to excel with, diminished velocity, relying on location and pitch sequencing.
Roberts thought the home run Kershaw gave up to Arenado was “a good pitch that [Arenado] put a good swing on,” a 91-mph 1-and-0 fastball down and in. But the home run Blackmon hit, on a 90-mph 0-and-2 fastball, was “middle-middle,” Roberts said.
“I thought his curve and slider were good,” Honeycutt said. “The fastball command, I would say, has not been good. When he’s in his groove, he has better command with his fastball.
“We’re not machines. Sometimes a pitch doesn’t get where it needs to be, and in today’s game, it ends up being a long ball instead of a ball that stays in the park.”
The Dodgers don’t necessarily need the Kershaw of 2014, when he was 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA and 239 strikeouts in 27 starts, to win their first World Series championship since 1988.
But they will need Kershaw, who is 9-10 with a 4.32 ERA in 30 postseason games, to be the best version of his current self, and far better than the pitcher who has been so vulnerable in the first inning this season.
“I wish I had an explanation,” Roberts said of Kershaw’s early struggles, “but the way Clayton goes about things and prepares, he’s an easy guy to know that once the postseason starts, he’ll be ready and he’s going to perform.”