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Dodgers

Clayton Kershaw is no longer the Dodgers’ ace, but his NLDS role is crucial

Clayton Kershaw talks about the challenges he’s facing heading into Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals.

On his way out of the Dodger Stadium clubhouse Thursday night, Clayton Kershaw smiled as he snaked through a cluster of reporters. This time, they weren’t waiting for him. Unlike most postseasons past, he was idle for Game 1.

Rather, Kershaw spent the National League Division Series opener in the dugout. Bundled in a blue sweatshirt, he watched while Walker Buehler –- the staff’s new No. 1 starter –- out-dueled Patrick Corbin and the Dodgers overpowered the Washington Nationals’ bullpen in a 6-0 win.

When Buehler’s night was finished, he plopped down next to Kershaw on the bench and chatted. When rookie Gavin Lux homered in his first postseason at-bat in the eighth inning, Kershaw bounced around behind the railing in excitement.

This year, the Dodgers didn’t need the three-time Cy Young award winner to land the first blow in October. They’re hoping Kershaw, who will start Game 2 on Friday night, can help deliver something of a knockout punch instead.
As manager Dave Roberts was mulling who to start in Game 2, he considered the bullpen as well. He knew whoever got the nod Friday would also be available in a potential Game 5 on Wednesday.

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Through that lens, picking Kershaw was easy. And after Thursday night’s decisive opening act, the Dodgers’ pitching plan for the rest of the series looks promising: Kershaw in Game 2, Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game 3, a mixture of Rich Hill and the bullpen in Game 4, and a combination including Buehler (likely as the starter) and Kershaw (in a relief appearance) in Game 5.

Asked about the pitching setup, Cody Bellinger smiled.

“Just what we wanted, just what we expected,” he said. “Couldn’t have been a better start.”

Kershaw’s postseason career has been much maligned. In 30 career 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 have often been at the heart of the Dodgers’ repeated October letdowns.

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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.

“I’m not really focusing on that right now, though,” said Kershaw of making another relief appearance. “Just focusing on” Game 2.

Although Roberts said Buehler would be the Game 5 starter, Kershaw would also be available to start on regular rest. 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.’”

Strasburg shot that notion down Thursday.

“Today he came in,” Martinez said, “and, without hesitation, he says: ‘I want the ball. I’m ready to pitch. I feel great.’”

Kershaw sounded just as eager to contribute.

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In 28 starts this regular season, he wasn’t as dominant as usual. 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 at the start of the postseason, Kershaw said he felt ready for repeated use in the NLDS if needed.

“I don’t think I’ll have any problem bouncing back,” he said.

Kershaw’s track record speaks for itself. Of the Dodgers’ 12 NLDS pitchers, only closer Kenley Jansen has more career postseason appearances. Rich Hill is the only other pitcher with at least 10 playoff starts. If the series goes the distance, Roberts wants the comfort of having 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 Walker having the opportunity to pitch twice in this series. We just felt very good in that sense.”


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