As he was mulling who to start in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts considered the bullpen too.
He knew whoever he picked to start Friday night would likely also be available in a potential Game 5 on Wednesday. Through that lens, his choice was easy. He went with the most experienced pitcher in his arsenal.
Clayton Kershaw will take the mound at Dodger Stadium in the second game of their best-of-five series against the Washington Nationals. Hyun-Jin Ryu, a Cy Young Award front-runner who had been the Dodgers’ best starter for most of the season but struggled with inconsistency down the stretch, will start Game 3 in Washington on Sunday.
The decision was made “a few days ago,” Roberts said. “Just appreciating what Clayton has done out of the ‘pen, and you’re talking about Game 5.”
Kershaw’s postseason career has been much maligned. In 30 playoff games, the left-hander is 9-10 with a 4.32 ERA, 1.092 WHIP and 9.8 strikeouts-per-nine-innings, his blunders often at the heart of the Dodgers’ repeated October letdowns over the last decade.
In his six playoff relief appearances, however, Kershaw has allowed just three earned runs in 9⅔ innings. Last year, he pitched a scoreless ninth inning in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. In 2017, he tossed four scoreless frames in Game 7 of the World Series. In 2016, during the Dodgers’ only other NLDS meeting against the Nationals, Kershaw started in Game 1 and Game 4, then earned a two-out save in Game 5.
Although Walker Buehler would be the logical choice to start a Game 5, Kershaw would be available to start on regular rest. He also could come out of the bullpen. The same would be true of Nationals’ Game 2 starter Stephen Strasburg, who threw 34 pitches over three scoreless innings in Tuesday night’s wild-card win over Milwaukee.
“Yeah, in my mind, I like the way that sets up,” Washington manager Davey Martinez said. “It had a lot to do with it.”
Strasburg went 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 33 starts this season, striking out 251 and walking 56 in 209 innings. When the Nationals arrived in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Martinez told Strasburg, “I would love for you to go Game 2, but if you think you need your five days, I get it, I understand. We can push it back. Today he came in and, without hesitation, he says, ‘I want the ball. I’m ready to pitch. I feel great.’ ”
Martinez said it was important that Strasburg make the decision.
“The biggest thing was I wanted him to come to me and I wanted him to own it,” Martinez said. “I wasn’t going to pressure him into doing anything because he’s done a lot for us already.”
Kershaw was just as eager to contribute any way he can.
“This year I’ve felt great the whole year after those first couple weeks,” said Kershaw, who made 28 starts after missing the team’s first 17 games with left shoulder inflammation. I don’t think I’ll have any problem bouncing back.”
Kershaw, 31, wasn’t as dominant as usual this regular season. Though he went to his eighth All-Star game, he posted a 3.03 ERA (the second-highest of his career) and surrendered a career-high 28 home runs. He only registered two quality starts in his final five and hasn’t pitched more than seven innings in any game all year.
But his track record speaks for itself. Of the Dodgers’ NLDS pitchers, only closer Kenley Jansen has more postseason appearances. Rich Hill is the only other pitcher with at least 10 playoff starts. If this series goes the distance, Roberts wants to know he’ll have the likely future Hall of Famer in his back pocket.
“Clayton has done it, he’s done well,” Roberts said. “You’ve got to prepare for a Game 5 if it does happen. What best prepares you for that? That’s Clayton pitching Game 2 and [Game 1 starter] Walker [Buehler] having the opportunity to pitch twice in this series. We just felt very good in that sense.”