Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw back in healthy form: Takeaways from Twins series
There were no dissenters in the Dodgers clubhouse Wednesday afternoon, no one inside the team who voiced a second guess of their manager’s decision.
In his season debut, Clayton Kershaw pitched seven perfect innings before being removed before the start of the eighth.
And pretty much everyone — the left-hander included — understood why.
Said Kershaw: “I mean, I would have loved to have stayed [in the game]. But bigger things, man, bigger things.”
Catcher Austin Barnes: “I think it was the right call. … The most important thing is to keep him healthy and being there for this team.”
Third baseman Justin Turner: “Obviously, when you’re two innings away and [have] a chance for history, it’s tough on anyone in any situation. But collectively, we’re here to win a championship and he’s going to be a big part of that.”
Indeed, the Dodgers’ focus in the aftermath of Wednesday’s 7-0 win — that gave them a two-game sweep of the Minnesota Twins and 3-2 finish to their season-opening road trip — was on what’s ahead, especially with a healthy, effective Kershaw back in the fold.
Clayton Kershaw struck out 13 in seven perfect innings for the Dodgers before giving way to the bullpen. Cody Bellinger hits one of four Dodgers homers.
“There was a lot of unknown for him with his health, the flexor,” Barnes said, referencing the elbow injury that kept Kershaw out of the playoffs last year. “Then he came to spring and was ready to roll. That was a surprise to me, how good he looked in the spring. Him carrying it over was big for us and big for the Dodgers.”
Here are four takeaways from the series.
Kershaw back from injury
Barely a month ago, after Kershaw signed a one-year, $17 million deal to return to the team, Dodgers coaches were unsure if the 34-year-old left-hander would even be able to be part of the season-opening roster.
The flexor tendon injury that ended his 2021 season also delayed his throwing program over the winter, preventing Kershaw from picking up a baseball until January. And while he was healthy at the start of spring, the shortened camp left limited time for him to rebuild his arm strength.
Yet, there he was Wednesday, not only making his first turn in the rotation but throwing the most pitches (80) out of any Dodgers starter yet.
“You just don’t know what you’re gonna expect from anyone their first outing,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Today they just didn’t have an answer for Clayton.”
Among the many impressive stats from Kershaw’s seven-inning gem: He struck out 13 batters, including 11 with his slider; he induced 20 whiffs out of the 40 times the Twins tried to get a swing off against him; he didn’t give up a hard hit ball (those with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph); and he was ruthlessly efficient, efficiency, highlighted by a six-pitch third inning, eight-pitch fifth, and 11-pitch seventh.
“I kept pounding the zone, throwing strikes,” he said. “And it worked out today.”
Decent start for rotation
Coupled with Andrew Heaney’s encouraging Dodgers debut the night before, Kershaw’s start completed a strong first turn through the starting rotation for the team.
Kershaw, Heaney and Walker Buehler all pitched at least into the fifth inning without giving up more than two runs. Tony Gonsolin couldn’t get very deep into his outing Saturday against the Rockies but gave up only one run in three innings.
The only poor start of the opening week belonged to Julio Urías, who struggled to command his pitches or find his normal velocity during a six-run (three earned), two-plus-inning performance in Colorado over the weekend.
But if Kershaw can stay healthy, he certainly looked capable Wednesday of still performing like a top-of-the-rotation arm capable of helping carry the Dodgers this season.
“There’s a lot of people that are cheering for the Dodgers, not only just for today and Clayton to throw a no-hitter, but for the Dodgers to win the World Series,” Roberts said when explaining why he removed Kershaw. “For us to do that, we need him healthy.”
Another perfect game decision
Over his seven years managing the Dodgers, Roberts has found himself in a spot similar to Wednesday’s several times.
During the opening week of the 2016 season, Roberts’ first on the job, the manager removed Ross Stripling from his major league debut after 7 ⅓ no-hit innings, wary of taxing the rookie who was coming off Tommy John surgery. Roberts called it a “no-brainer” at the time, but the Dodgers’ bullpen went on to blow a two-run lead and lose the game.
In September of that same season, Roberts removed Rich Hill from a game after seven perfect innings and 89 pitches, wary of a blister problem Hill was enduring at the time. The Dodgers held on to win, but Hill showed clear frustration with the call and a conflicted Roberts said afterward he doubted he would ever “have to make a tougher decision” as manager again.
Before Wednesday, it was the first time since 1901 a pitcher had been removed from a game after seven perfect innings.
In 2017, Hill was in the middle of another tough decision. The veteran threw nine no-hit innings in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the Dodgers failed to score, sending the contest to extra innings. Roberts allowed Hill to return to the mound in the 10th, when he promptly gave up a walk-off home run to lose both the no-hitter and the game.
The one no-hitter the Dodgers have completed during Roberts’ tenure was a combined bid, as well, when Walker Buehler (who was removed after six innings and 93 pitches) and three relievers accomplished the feat against the San Diego Padres in a May 2018 game in Mexico.
On Wednesday, Roberts smirked when a reporter asked about his long line of difficult no-hitter and perfect game decisions.
“I love the idea that we’re preventing runs in that particular game, but I think that it’s not a great spot, as far as the decision ultimately that I have to make,” he said. “I think if I can look back and if I feel it’s the best decision in the best interest of the player’s health and for the ballclub looking out, then I feel good about it. Yeah, those guys make it tough on me, but we have good players.”
Offense comes to life
After a cold finish to their series in Colorado and even colder start to their trip to Minnesota — a stretch that at one point included the team scoring just one run over a 12-inning span — the Dodgers finally showed some firepower at the plate in their sweep of the Twins.
In the eighth inning Tuesday, they batted around to score six runs with four hits, three walks and an error, breaking open what had been a tied score in an eventual 7-2 win.
They carried that momentum into Wednesday afternoon, striking for three early runs to give Kershaw a lead, before clobbering four solo shots late — including three in a row during the top of the eighth.
“I thought overall, up and down, we had great at-bats,” Roberts said.
Wednesday’s performance was particularly key for Cody Bellinger, who recorded his first extra-base hit of the season with a third inning double before starting the eighth-inning barrage with a deep home run to right-center field.
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Bellinger’s batting stance — a closely examined topic during spring training — is back to an older version, with his hands up near his head and the barrel parallel to the ground pre-swing.
The center fielder, however, credited a better approach now that he’s a week into regular-season games again.
“It feels great,” said Bellinger, who is batting just .222 so far with a decent .808 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. “I’m not results-based right now. I’m going off how I feel. And I’ve been feeling good. It’s nice to see the box score results.”
Other notable performances from Wednesday: Max Muncy hit his first home run of the season, an encouraging step as he continues to get comfortable again following last season’s elbow injury. Gavin Lux had a home run to maintain the early season team lead in batting average (.353), OPS (.988) and RBIs (five). Barnes hit his second home run in as many starts, as well.
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