Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw is set to make what could be his final rehab start on Wednesday as he inches closer to a return from an upper back injury that has kept him out of action since being scratched from his second start of the season on March 30.
At the time, the Dodgers had a 2-0 record after sweeping the Arizona Diamondbacks in Australia and were looking primed to continue their dominance of 2013, a season in which they were victorious in 62 of their final 90 regular-season games and advanced to within two wins of a World Series appearance.
Although the other three teams in the division—the Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants—had yet to play a game, there had to be at least some concern that the Dodgers were capable of running away from the pack as they did late last season.
But the injury to 2013 Cy Young Award winner Kershaw, who allowed just one earned run over 6.2 innings during the team's Opening Day victory over the D-backs, made that much less of a certainty.
In fact, the possibility for one of those teams to build a big lead over a Kershaw-less Dodgers team had quickly become a reality.
ESPN's Buster Olney listed a Kershaw injury as one of the top five reasons why the Dodgers wouldn't win the NL West, comparing his loss to the Dodgers of 1962-1966 losing Sandy Koufax.
MLB Lead Writer Zach Rymer wrote about the window of opportunity that had opened up for the D-backs, Rockies, Padres and Giants and the potential impact that Kershaw's absence for even a few weeks could have on the race. Rymer's advice to the Dodgers' division rivals: "Win as many games as you can now, while the getting's good in the NL West race."
As of today, though, it's safe to say that none of those division rivals have been able to take advantage of their "head start."
The Dodgers haven't played over their heads without their ace, managing a 12-12 record, while Kershaw's fill-in Paul Maholm has been very good in two starts and very bad in two others.
In the meantime, the D-backs have lost 19 of 27 and are already buried in the division. The Giants have gone 15-11, the Rockies are 15-12 and the Padres are 13-14. Regardless of what happens between now and when Kershaw can conceivably return during the team's May 5-7 series against the Washington Nationals, the Dodgers won't be too far behind, if at all.
Their current one-game deficit to the first-place Giants is nothing compared to what they overcame last summer. In a span of one month, from June 22 through July 22, they had not only emerged from a 9.5-game hole, but they had jumped all four division rivals to go from worst to first in the division. By August 22, they had a 9.5-game lead and were on cruise control.
It's still a tight race, but it will soon be one in which the Dodgers will have the best pitcher and, arguably, the best rotation. And this time, they'll have no deep hole to dig themselves out of.