Clayton Kershaw targeting Sunday return; Dodgers expect Brusdar Graterol to rebound

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw looks on from the dugout in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw looks on from the dugout in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Dodger Stadium on May 13.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

When it has come to Clayton Kershaw’s health in recent years, the Dodgers’ biggest question hasn’t been whether the left-hander can avoid injury, but rather when he’d go down — and for how long.

So while a monthlong absence because of a back injury has been frustrating for the 34-year-old pitcher, it hasn’t been entirely infuriating either.

“It’s not what anybody would want,” Kershaw said Tuesday. “But I’d rather it happen this month than September, October.”

Out since May 7 because of sacroiliac joint inflammation that was causing pain in his lower back, Kershaw appears to be on the verge of returning to the rotation — likely as soon as Sunday’s game in San Francisco.

Kershaw said he bounced back well from his four-inning rehab start last Sunday with class-A Rancho Cucamonga and felt good after the team’s flight to Chicago on Monday (Kershaw’s latest back injury popped up after a cross-country flight).

“Got some things to work on obviously, but overall to get through four innings was good,” Kershaw said. “I think I’m ready to go.”

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Kershaw will throw a bullpen session either Tuesday or Wednesday. If that goes well, manager Dave Roberts said the left-hander should be ready to start the series finale in San Francisco.

“The back is something he’s going to always have to manage,” Roberts said. “We just hope that the time that we took, we can keep it at bay. It’s something that we’re all aware of that at any point in time it could show itself. But right now, my encouragement to him is, ‘You feel good and let’s kind of build on that and let’s keep going.’ ”

Kershaw had been off to a strong start this season. In his first five starts, he was 4-0 with a 1.80 earned-run average — including seven perfect innings in his season debut.

“I had a pretty decent feel with my fastball and slider, obviously which are my two big pitches,” Kershaw said. “I would like to have my curveball a little bit better. I’ve used it, just hasn’t had the bite necessarily, the command that I’d want. So I’ll spend some time this week working on that a little bit.”

“Just want to be more consistent overall with everything,” he added. “It’s hard. You get in a good rhythm the first five or six starts and then having to take basically a month off. … But overall, just trying to get back to the feel that I had early in the season.”

Graterol looking for command

Dodgers pitcher Brusdar Graterol in action during a game against the Washington Nationals.
Dodgers pitcher Brusdar Graterol in action during a game against the Washington Nationals on May 24 in Washington.
(Nick Wass / Associated Press)

With Blake Treinen and Tommy Kahnle both battling long-term injuries, the Dodgers have been hoping Brusdar Graterol could become a reliable force at the back of the bullpen.


So far, however, the right-hander’s consistency and command have been anything but.

Graterol already had been having an up-and-down campaign before struggling in outings against the New York Mets last Saturday and Sunday, giving up three runs in one inning in both — the latter of which cost the Dodgers an eighth-inning lead and left Graterol with a 4.81 ERA, highest in the bullpen.

Following Sunday‘s game, Roberts called on Graterol to improve, especially with his fastball command.

“It doesn’t matter how hard you throw,” Roberts said of the flame-throwing 23-year-old. “You still gotta command the baseball and he’s just not.”

On Tuesday, Graterol acknowledged being too “fine” with some pitches and said Roberts talked to him about keeping his emotions in check better during outings.

“Just kind of taking it under control, taking a deep breath, just relaxing a little more on the mound,” Graterol said through an interpreter.

Graterol maintained confidence in his slider and cutter but acknowledged he hasn’t consistently balanced his triple-digit heat with the secondary pitches, either.

“When you’re throwing that fastball and you’re throwing as hard as I am, you’re aggressive,” he said. “You feel aggressive on the mound. Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back to utilize those other pitches the way I’m trying to.”

While some of Graterol’s underlying numbers remain solid — even with the fifth-highest average fastball velocity (99.3) in the majors, he is giving up what MLB defines as “hard contact” at the second-lowest rate (19.7%) — walks have been a recurring issue the last two seasons.

After walking just three batters in 23⅓ innings in 2020, he issued 13 in 33⅓ innings last year and already has 10 in 24⅓ innings this season.

He also has struggled to put batters away, with a 22.9% whiff rate that, despite being a career best, is still well below league average.

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“Like with any pitcher, the more a hitter sees a pitcher in an at-bat, the advantage goes to the hitter,” Roberts said. “For me, I think he’s being too fine. Versus right, versus left, I think he’s pitching to the edges too much and getting deeper into counts and getting behind. And that always leaves less margin for error.”

When Graterol was struggling last year, the Dodgers sent him to the minors to work things out. Given the absences they’re dealing with in the bullpen, Roberts is hoping they won’t have to do that again.

“A guy that has pitched in World Series games and gets lefties out, righties out, can command the baseball, he’s resilient and I trust him,” Roberts said. “We need him to be good.”

Added Graterol: “I’ve just got to think about what I need to do to do my job.”