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Column: Clayton Kershaw again is the Dodgers’ go-to man

The Dodgers came close, but couldn’t take down the Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series. Was the 8-4 loss disheartening or encouraging in the best-of-seven series?

As many changes as the Dodgers made to their roster and bench over the winter, one fundamental truth about them remained the same. 

They are overly dependent on Clayton Kershaw.

So after dropping the opening game of their National League Championship Series to the Chicago Cubs, they will call on Kershaw to salvage their season and preserve their October dreams.

Again.

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A presumably fatigued Kershaw will take the mound at Wrigley Field in what has become a virtual must-win Game 2 for the Dodgers.

Lose here and they will return to Dodger Stadium trailing the best-of-seven series, two games to none. Their Game 3 pitcher will be Rich Hill, who has looked more like a journeyman than top pitcher in the next free-agent class. 

These Dodgers weren’t supposed to be about one player. But they are. These Dodgers weren’t supposed to burden Kershaw as they did in the past. But, again, they are.

Many of the gambles the Dodgers made last winter worked. They returned more or less the same lineup, counting on the likes of Justin Turner and Yasmani Grandal to recover from surgeries, which they did. They assembled a group of anonymous hard-throwing relievers with high spin rates, which went on to become the best bullpen in baseball.

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They also made a bet on the starting pitching. Only this time, they lost. Their search for value resulted in a rotation consisting of the likes of Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir and Brett Anderson, each of whom had lengthy medical histories. Predictably, they all went down, which is why the Dodgers had to start Kenta Maeda in Game 1.

Maeda lasted only four innings, giving up three runs and four hits. The Dodgers are now behind in the series.

If anything, Kershaw has less protection now than he’s ever had. The last three times the Dodgers reached the postseason, they had Zack Greinke behind him.

When Kershaw pitches Sunday, he will be fewer than 48 hours removed from delivering his last competitive pitch, a breaking ball that Wilmer Difo missed for strike three and secured a victory in the final game of the Dodgers’ NL division series against the Washington Nationals.

In what became his signature October moment that eluded him up to this point, Kershaw raised his arms in triumph. He was elated, but also exhausted. His first career save came two days after he pitched Game 4 of that series on three-days’ rest.

How much longer can the Dodgers ride him?

“I’m not going in with any restrictions,” Kershaw said.

But as well as he pitched for the first six innings of the NLDS, the reality is that he ran out of gas in the seventh. He departed from that game with two runners on base and the Dodgers bullpen allowed both of them to score. This wasn’t the first time Kershaw was failed by his relievers.

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Kershaw will be pitching on a regular four-day cycle between starts this time, but how much he has left is anyone’s guess.

How heavy of a load can his back carry? If you remember, his back has a herniated disk.

If the physical cost of pitching in relief Thursday remains in question, so does the emotional toll. He looked as if he emptied himself in the NLDS. 

For what it’s worth, he is saying the right things.

“It doesn’t really matter at this point,” he said of his save. “I know the Cubs don’t care.”

And the Dodgers don’t have a choice.

It’s not as if they can turn to anyone else at this point. Manager Dave Roberts acknowledged he didn’t really consider any other options.

“If he feels good, then it’s a no-brainer,” Roberts said of the decision to start Kershaw.

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Of course, it is.

What Kershaw has on his side is history.

Although he still isn’t regarded in Los Angeles as the same caliber of postseason performer as Orel Hershiser, he was successful the last two times he was called on to extend a playoff series.

When the Dodgers were trailing the New York Mets in the NLDS last year, two games to one, they went to Kershaw on short rest. Kershaw responded by giving up only one run in seven innings. The Dodgers won and forced Game 5.

More recently, there was the series against the Nationals, which the Dodgers also trailed, two games to one. Kershaw delivered 62/3 innings and set the stage for a late win. 

This is a considerable responsibility for any one player to shoulder. But if anyone can, it’s the best pitcher on the planet.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez


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