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Column: With ace Clayton Kershaw again on shelf, Dodgers must regroup

Los Angeles Times sports writer Andy McCullough and columnist Dylan Hernandez talk about Dodgers baseball and Clayton Kershaw’s return.

Clayton Kershaw blinked hard, looked down, spoke slowly, the pain in his back filling his voice.

“It’s beyond frustrating,” he said.

The strongest and surest of Dodgers appeared weary and lost, his emotions raw, his uncertainty real.

“To feel like you’re out of the woods, feeling healthy, feeling good, then to have that kind of crop up during the game,” he said. “Obviously don’t know the severity, don’t know the length, don’t know any of that, but yeah, extremely frustrating, for sure.”

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Hold that comeback. Reset those fears. Cover your eyes.

In Kershaw’s return to the mound Thursday after missing a month with biceps tendinitis, he was rudely accompanied by what has become his evil twin.

The bad back is back.

For the fourth time in five seasons, Kershaw could be sidelined with a back injury after he felt tightness throughout his start against the Philadelphia Phillies. It was painful enough to contribute to an early exit after just five innings and 62 pitches. It was serious enough to keep him off the team’s Thursday night flight to Colorado. It is worrisome enough to warrant an MRI exam scheduled for Friday.

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The Dodgers lost to the Phillies 2-1 after allowing two preventable runs, but that’s not the story. Kershaw overcame dramatic decreased velocity to allow just one run with five strikeouts, but that’s also not the story.

The story is the potentially huge chunk of their season’s hopes that might have disappeared with the best pitcher on the planet after he slipped into the dugout amid the late-afternoon shadows.

In the previous two seasons the Dodgers have been a combined 40-8 in games he has started. This season they are 2-6 when he pitches, and now might have to climb out of a 26-30 hole without him.

“It might not be that bad, I don’t know right now, it’s just tightness, that’s the best way I can describe it right now,” Kershaw said.

That’s how he’s described it before, and each time the back issue has resulted in a lengthy stint on the disabled list, so much that the injury has become almost as prominent on his resume as his three Cy Young Awards.

He missed six weeks with a back strain in 2014. He missed 21/2 months with a herniated disk in 2016. He missed five weeks with a back strain in 2017.

He has never had surgery on the back, which has caused the Dodgers to hold their breath every time he takes the mound, and right about now, they’re pretty much blue in the face.

“It sucks,” said Cody Bellinger.

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Though the Dodgers survived to win division championships in each of those four years, and have actually gone 75-46 when Kershaw is on the disabled list the last three years, this feels different. This offense is lagging, the bullpen is spotty, and, though their starting pitching has been excellent in Kershaw’s recent absence, the rotation’s ranks have now thinned beyond recognition.

Rich Hill is out. Kenta Maeda is out. Hyun-Jin Ryu is out. If Kershaw is placed on the disabled list, that would mean four-fifths of the opening day rotation is sidelined. Oh yeah, and the fifth member, Alex Wood, is having his next start pushed back two days because of concern over a leg injury.

Even before Kershaw was injured, the Dodgers’ scheduled starter for Friday’s series opener at West Division-leading Colorado was the bullpen. That’s right, the entire bullpen.

Even the savvy of Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi is not enough to produce multiple starting pitchers out of thin air.

“I’m not a ‘woe is me,’” said Kershaw. “Nobody is going to be feeling sorry for me or us or anything like that.”

Actually, they might be. If he is indeed sidelined again, it actually feels right to feel sorry for Kershaw, as few pro athletes in this town have given so much with no ring as a reward.

Despite his enormous riches and fame, Kershaw is still mostly known for being emblematic of this club’s frustration in failing to win a World Series championship during their five-year title run.

He carries the Dodgers into the playoffs, he wearily breaks down at some point in October, they fall short, he takes the heat, then he gathers himself and does it all over again.

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All those innings, all that responsibility, it’s worn him down such that if his back is indeed injured again, one wonders how he can continue avoiding surgery, and how that would affect the rest of this career.

“I’m frustrated, disappointed I can’t contribute to the team, obviously,” said Kershaw, who is 30 but seems much older.

The difficult happenings of Thursday afternoon contained other ramifications. This was the winter in which Kershaw could opt out of his deal and test his value on the free agent market if he stayed healthy. But if he is not sound, it would appear unlikely he would walk away from a deal that would pay him $65 million over the next two seasons.

Nobody in the Dodgers dugout was likely thinking of that as they watched his fastball average 89.7 mph Thursday, considerably below his career average of 93.1.

He began throwing around 90, but slowed as the Phillies hit into hard outs and struck out on off-speed stuff. Kershaw allowed his only run in the second inning when Maikel Franco sprinted from second base past home plate on Jorge Alfaro’s single, actually missing the plate, but the Dodgers inexplicably didn’t ask for a replay.

That was a fluke, but Kershaw’s declining velocity was real, and such a worry that he was pulled even though he struck out the side in the final inning of his scary afternoon.

“The fastball, the slider, the curve, everything ticked down a little bit,” said manager Dave Roberts.

Now, if Kershaw is sidelined again, it is the Dodgers expectations for the remainder of the summer that may have to tick down a bit. Or maybe more than a bit.

Well, at least there was one piece of good news Thursday in what could be the briefest injury comebacks in Dodger history.

“The shoulder feels great,” said Kershaw. “So whoop-de-do.”

Los Angeles Times sports writer Andy McCullough and columnist Dylan Hernandez talk about Dodgers baseball and Clayton Kershaw’s return.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke


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