LOS ANGELES — Clayton Kershaw should be used to his name being mentioned in the same sentence as Cy Young by now. After all, he’s won three of the awards named after the Hall of Famer from the turn of the last century.
It probably made sense that the moment passed quietly Wednesday afternoon, then, when Kershaw passed Cy Young the pitcher in the record book. His strikeout of Colorado’s Garrett Hampson to end the fifth inning, and his day’s work, was the 2,804th of his major league career.
It made him one of just six pitchers to reach 2,800 with one team. And it pushed him past Young, who finished his career with 2,803 with four different teams.
Surely, that baseball’s worth something, right?
“Barnesy (Austin Barnes) told me,” Kershaw quipped afterward. “He took the ball. He said he was gonna keep it because I don’t appreciate it enough. That’s probably fair.”
He’s got the trophies, so I guess he doesn’t need the ball.
But those strikeouts, eight in a very strong five-inning stint, sent another message.
A year ago Kershaw walked off the mound after a September start, taking the ball with him and leaving us wondering not only if he’d ever wear a Dodger uniform again but if his elbow would allow him to pitch again, period. He was unavailable for the 2021 postseason, and we’ll never know if his absence, or that of Max Muncy after hurting his elbow in Game 162, was the difference between an NLCS loss to Atlanta and a trip back to the World Series.
There was that. And there was the uncertainty during the lockout and extending a few days past it before Kershaw, a free agent, rejoined the only organization he’s ever known on a one-year contract.
It has been an up-and-down season. It was very positive from a performance standpoint, including two games when he was perfect through seven innings, his first All-Star Game start on his home mound, passing Don Sutton to become his franchise’s strikeout king, and a 2.30 ERA. But it was negative because of two stints on the injured list because of his back, a reminder of the baseball mortality of a 34-year-old pitcher who’s been doing this for 15 years.
He does not take these opportunities for granted, nor should any of us. And when the Dodgers begin a best-of-five NL Division Series next week in The Ravine against either the New York Mets or the Padres, Kershaw will start either Game 1 or Game 2.
Manager Dave Roberts made it clear before Wednesday’s Game 162, a 6-1 victory over Colorado that was the Dodgers’ 111th win, that the decision regarding the Game 1 starter would hinge on “who we feel can best potentially come back on regular rest in (a potential) Game 5.”
Kershaw got through five innings on Wednesday – allowing only a home run to Ezequiel Tovar, striking out eight, walking one and doing so in 72 pitches. That was less of a factor, Roberts said after the game, than what Kershaw will report to the training staff Thursday and Friday.
That he’s here, preparing for his 11th postseason, should not be taken for granted. When he left his Aug. 4 start in San Francisco with what would be a recurrence of his back issues, there were certainly no guarantees.
“Coming back, I think, was huge,” Kershaw said Wednesday. “I’m thankful that when my back kind of gave out in San Fran it wasn’t like a super serious thing. Just needed a couple of weeks to reset. And then the timing, I was just thankful for that more than anything.”
He was out for a little less than a month, returned to the mound Sept. 1, and in his seven September/October starts was 5-0 with a 1.40 ERA, 49 strikeouts in 45 innings and an 0.844 WHIP. His season figures: 12-3, 2.28, 23 walks, 137 strikeouts in 126-1/3 innings and a 0.942 WHIP.
That should play. It might not be classic Kershaw, but it’s dependable Kershaw.
“I felt a little bit better today than I did stuff-wise my last (start),” he said. “I felt like my spin, slider/curveball, were a little bit better, a little bit sharper today, which was good. So I’m glad I got this last start.
“And overall, you know, I’m thankful for another season. … I didn’t quite make it (unscathed) through this year. But I’m healthy at the right time this year, which is huge for me.”
This time of the year is what he had in mind when he made the decision to return to Los Angeles for another season, even with the lure of pitching closer to home with the Texas Rangers. October matters.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “Think back in March, thinking about your life and different options and things like that. This is what I want to do. That doesn’t mean it’s just going to come easy. Obviously, it’s going to be a grind. It’s going to be a challenge. But that’s why I’m here. It’s what I want and I’m looking forward to the next month.”
There were unknowns. There was no certainty about how his elbow would respond, especially since he couldn’t really do a lot until March.
But he’s here. Octobers have been cruel to him in the past, but one particular postseason, in 2020, wiped away a lot of the angst. Last October was cruel in a different way, because he couldn’t participate.
Does he maybe cherish it a little more now than he did earlier in his career?
“Everything’s a little bit better in perspective when it’s your choice to come back and be here,” he said. “And this is where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do.
“I think definitely maybe (there’s) a little bit different perspective, but it doesn’t change the overall goal.”
Which is, obviously, still 11 victories away.