Brandon McDaniel read the unusually forward quote from Clayton Kershaw last November, just days after the Dodgers lost in the World Series for the second year in a row, and took note.
“It gives me a chance to prove a lot of people wrong,” Kershaw told reporters after agreeing to a new three-year contract.
“I personally took that as, ‘All right, let’s go,’” said McDaniel, the Dodgers’ strength and conditioning coach.
A conversation about the sentiment wasn’t necessary. Every year is a big year for Kershaw, but everyone involved sensed 2019 was particularly important for the future Hall of Famer. So over the next three months, McDaniel spent more time with Kershaw in Texas than he ever had during an offseason. There was a five-day trip and a few shorter tuneups and check-ins. Other Dodgers athletic trainers and physical therapists periodically traveled to visit Kershaw. Extra attention was provided because they were tinkering with Kershaw’s regimen in an effort to avoid ailments and a decline the pitcher was adamant he would surmount.
Different methods were introduced. Some stuck, some were discarded. And by mid-March, like every other year, McDaniel said, Kershaw had settled on a routine. At that point this spring, Kershaw was dealing with a shoulder injury. He would start the season on the injured list. It was a precarious opening to Kershaw’s 12th season. But six months later, he’s again in a position he trained to occupy over the winter: available to help the Dodgers advance in the postseason.
Walker Buehler will start opposite Stephen Strasburg on Wednesday in a decisive Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Washington Nationals, and Kershaw will be in the bullpen to provide relief. Manager Dave Roberts said the left-hander would “piggyback” Buehler and pitch more than one inning. He will be on regular rest after throwing six innings in Game 2.
“I’m going to have a hard time taking the ball out of Walker’s hands,” Roberts said Tuesday. “But knowing you got Clayton behind him, and a slew of other pitchers, is more my thought.”
Roberts said all 12 pitchers on the roster will be at his disposal. That includes Hyun-Jin Ryu. The left-hander said he is willing to pitch in relief, but Roberts said that scenario is “highly unlikely.” Ryu made his only major league relief appearance in 2017.
“Just given the guys that we have available, how much or how little Hyun-Jin has [pitched in relief], his availability for Game 1 in the NLCS,” Roberts said, listing the factors that went into his decision. “I appreciate his willingness but I just don’t really see that as a viable possibility.”
Those other options have experienced mixed results through four games. Julio Urias has appeared in three, including Games 3 and 4 on back-to-back days, and been charged with three runs in 3-2/3 innings. Joe Kelly faced four batters and didn’t record an out in his second appearance in Game 3. Pedro Baez surrendered a crucial three-run home run to Ryan Zimmerman in Game 4 on his second pitch. He’s allowed four hits while securing just two outs in two games.
The best of the bunch have been Kenta Maeda and Adam Kolarek. Maeda has given up one hit in 3-2/3 scoreless innings. Kolarek has been called on to face the dangerous Juan Soto three times and retired him each time. Kenley Jansen, meanwhile, has pitched just once, tossing a clean ninth inning to finish Game 3.
“Under these circumstances,” Roberts said, “we’re going to rely on anyone at any point.”
Roberts wasn’t as certain about his starting lineup. He said Will Smith will start at catcher for the fourth time in the series, but he hasn’t decided whether fellow rookies Gavin Lux and Matt Beaty, starters in Game 4, would start Wednesday.
Beaty started over A.J. Pollock in left field Monday. Pollock batted third when the Dodgers encountered Strasburg in Game 2 — he had been seven for 14 in his career against the right-hander — but he’s 0 for 12 with 10 strikeouts in the series and went 0 for 3 against Strasburg. He struck out in his pinch-hit appearance in Game 4, and Roberts maintained the team still is deciding whether to insert him in the lineup.
“I’m obviously aware of, obviously the way he’s feeling at the plate,” Roberts said. “But starting or not, I know A.J. will be ready to help us win in whatever capacity.”
Scoring against Strasburg presents a daunting task. The right-hander began his postseason by tossing three scoreless innings out of the bullpen in the wild-card game against Milwaukee. On Friday, on two days’ rest, he held the Dodgers to one run on three hits in six innings. He struck out 10 without walking a batter, relying on his curveball more than the Dodgers anticipated.
“When he’s making pitches like that, on top of the fastball, he’s going to be tough on anybody,” Roberts said. “So I think for us to kind of hunt a location and be ready to capitalize on mistakes is very important.”
The Dodgers’ easiest path to advancing to their fourth consecutive championship series is raising Strasburg’s pitch count early and forcing the Nationals to dip into their frightful bullpen. It is their weakest link, one they’ve furiously tried to avoid exposing with varying degrees of success. On Wednesday, Patrick Corbin, one of their top three starters, will be available out of the bullpen for the second time. The left-hander was charged with six runs in a disastrous two-thirds of an inning in Game 3. After that, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson are the only choices they’ve trusted in close games.
The Dodgers, on paper, boast more alternatives. One of them has closed out the Nationals in a Game 5 before. Three years ago, Kershaw recorded the final two outs on one day of rest to eliminate the Nationals in Washington. He’s a different pitcher now. The velocity isn’t the same. The dominance isn’t as routine. But he put in the work to ensure he would be available again.
“I’ll be ready to go,” Kershaw said.