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Clayton Kershaw’s return an important step for October-focused Dodgers

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw celebrates with his teammates in the dugout after exiting the game in the fifth inning.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw celebrates with his teammates in the dugout after exiting the game in the fifth inning of a 5-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday night.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The scene Monday night at Dodger Stadium was familiar: Clayton Kershaw jogging out to the mound to pent-up roars in his return from an extended stint on the injured list. The circumstances, with less than three weeks left in the regular season, were not.

In the past, the Dodgers needed Kershaw to round into top form for the playoffs for a real chance to win the World Series. This year, barring injury, the team has three other Cy Young Award candidates — Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urías — primed for the heavy postseason lifting. As the Dodgers stand, they don’t need Kershaw to front the charge.

But a Dodgers postseason run wouldn’t be right without Kershaw, a future Hall of Famer and beloved clubhouse leader grateful for every October opportunity, and Monday was an encouraging step in the right direction. Pitching in a big league game for the first time in more than two months, the left-hander, desperate to help his club in a pennant race, gave up one run over 4 1/3 innings in the Dodgers’ 5-1 win over the last-place Arizona Diamondbacks.

The combination of Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw is capable of leading the Dodgers to a World Series, something Trevor Bauer has yet to achieve.

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“There’s not a lot of better feelings in the world than getting to pitch here and getting a win,” Kershaw said. “It’s a special thing. I missed it. It was good to be back.”

Kershaw struck out five (all swinging), walked one and threw 50 pitches with his high school teammate, Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, in the stands. His 89.2-mph average fastball velocity was a tick below his usual mark this season, but he compiled 11 swinging strikes anyway. Three of his strikeouts came on a slider. The other two were on curveballs. To top it off, he beat out an infield single in his only plate appearance, bumping up his batting average to .258.

“It felt right having him back out here,” catcher Austin Barnes said. “He’s been our guy here, our leader. It was just good to have him out there competing again.”

The Dodgers (92-53) extended their winning streak to four games to keep pace with the San Francisco Giants and remain 2½ games out of first place in the National League West. The Giants drubbed the San Diego Padres 9-1 for their eighth straight victory Monday and became the first team in the majors to clinch a playoff berth. The Dodgers can seal a spot Tuesday if they beat Arizona and two of the Padres, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals lose.

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivers during a 5-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts pulls pitcher Clayton Kershaw out of the game during the fifth inning Monday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Kershaw, 33, had last pitched in the majors against the Washington Nationals on July 3 when Scherzer and Trea Turner, now teammates, were on the other side. He landed on the injured list because of forearm inflammation four days later and expected to return in a month. But the timetable was extended when he suffered a setback after pitching in a simulated game in late July.

He finally pitched in a competitive game on a rehabilitation assignment with triple-A Oklahoma City last Tuesday, logging three innings. Most importantly, he emerged healthy and was green-lighted Monday to join the Dodgers’ push for a ninth straight division title.

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“He’s been miserable,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said before Monday’s game. “He hates not competing and not playing, but he’s been a great teammate as far as supporting guys. I know he’s been waiting for this day for quite some time.”

Los Angeles, CA, Monday, Sept. 13, 2021 - Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner.
Justin Turner runs the bases after hitting a solo home run in the seventh inning against the Diamondbacks on Monday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Kershaw struck out Nick Ahmed to start Monday’s game before Ketel Marte lined a pitch off third baseman Justin Turner’s glove and into left field for a double. Three batters later, Marte scored on Josh Rojas’ two-out single to give Arizona (47-97) a quick lead. Kershaw needed 20 pitches to record the first three outs.

The deficit didn’t last long. The Dodgers hung three runs on Diamondbacks right-hander Zac Gallen in the first inning. Mookie Betts smacked a leadoff double, Trea Turner walked, Corey Seager collected an RBI single and Justin Turner smashed a two-run double.

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Kershaw found his rhythm from there. Jake McCarthy singled in the second inning but was left stranded at second base. Kershaw then retired the side in order in a five-pitch third inning. Andrew Young tallied a two-out double in the fourth, but he was left on base too.

Highlights from the Dodgers’ 5-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday night at Dodger Stadium.

Kershaw took the mound in the fifth inning just to face Gallen, the pitcher, and got him to line out. Roberts then surfaced from the dugout to take the ball from him, prompting a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd.

“My pitch count was low, obviously, but for me the up-and-downs are harder than the pitch count,” Kershaw said. “I think sitting down and getting back up for that fifth time was important.”

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Kershaw is slated to pitch again Sunday in Cincinnati against a Reds club battling for the second wild-card spot and, perhaps, a meeting with the Dodgers in the wild-card game Oct. 6. He will be on a longer leash in his ramp-up to the postseason. In previous years, the Dodgers’ championship hopes would rest on his progression. This time, he just wants to be healthy to help.

Max Scherzer became the 19th pitcher in major-league history to record 3,000 strikeouts in his career during Sunday’s game against the Padres.

Short hops

AJ Pollock said the right hamstring injury he suffered Sept. 4 isn’t as severe as he initially feared. The outfielder was diagnosed with a Grade 2 strain. He is slated to go on a rehab assignment with a minor league affiliate in the next week before joining the team before the end of the season. Pollock took ground balls and completed agility drills at Dodger Stadium on Monday. … Roberts said the Dodgers will decide whether to place Chris Taylor on the IL by Wednesday. Taylor hasn’t played since Friday because of a neck injury. He isn’t expected to play Tuesday. … The Dodgers designated outfielder Steven Souza Jr. for assignment to make room on the active and 40-man rosters for Kershaw.


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