Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill on the Comeback Trail at Perfect Time for Dodgers

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 21, 2016

The best pitcher in the universe could return after all.
The best pitcher in the universe could return after all.Harry How/Getty Images

Just when the Los Angeles Dodgers have finally caught up with the San Francisco Giants, their starting pitching has gone and quit on them.

Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill, that's your cue to come back and fix everything.

Both are on the comeback trail from injuries, and Hill in particular is making real progress. He has yet to pitch for the Dodgers since they acquired him and Josh Reddick from the Oakland A's at the Aug. 1 deadline. But Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times reports the veteran left-hander is slated to pitch Wednesday:

Hill has been dealing with blister problems that have sidelined him since the middle of July. But in a 78-pitch simulated game in Arizona on Thursday, everything was green on his screen.

“Everything felt great,” Hill said, per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. “The ball came out really good, the velocity maintained, breaking ball was really sharp.”

Kershaw, meanwhile, has been out with a bad back since late June. But on Friday, he was able to throw off a mound for the first time in over a month. And contrary to the bad vibes that came from his last mound session, the world's best pitcher was practically beaming after this one.

“I felt good,” Kershaw said, per McCullough. “I don’t know. Until you face hitters, you don’t really know for sure. I feel 100 percent right now, so that’s a good sign.”

Aug 7, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) in the dugout during the fifth inning of the game against the Boston Red Sox at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike Hill, Kershaw's return is not imminent. Don't hold your breath waiting for it. In fact, I'm legally obligated to repeat that. Seriously, don't.

But the idea that Kershaw's return could happen at all is a big enough development on its own. It wasn't long ago that Jon Heyman was casting doubt on Kershaw coming back at Today's Knuckleball. According to McCullough, the Dodgers now "hope he could start again at some point in September."

Talk about a September call-up. It seems like Kershaw last toed the mound ages ago, but it's hard to forget just how absurdly good he was in his first 16 starts. With an MLB-best 1.79 ERA, 16.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and other such fantastical numbers, the lefty was on his way to his fourth Cy Young and possibly his second MVP.

And don't overlook what Hill could bring to the Dodgers. The 36-year-old journeyman put up a 2.25 ERA in 14 starts for the A's, bringing his ERA in 18 starts since his re-emergence last season to 2.06. It all passes the smell test, too. 

Of course, Hill and Kershaw have been out so long that there's hardly a guarantee that both will pick up right where they left off. There could be some rust. Potentially lots of it.

But no matter the amount of rust, there's not a team in the league that wouldn't roll the dice on two such dangerous arms at this point in the season. And if there's one club that has no choice but to hope for the best, it's the Dodgers.

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 17:  Rich Hill #18 of the Oakland Athletics pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning at the Oakland Coliseum on July 17, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The Dodgers are owed all the credit in the world for not letting Kershaw's absence crash their pursuit of the Giants in the NL West. They instead did the opposite. As San Francisco collapsed out of the gate in the second half, the Dodgers surged. This past Tuesday, they finally took over first place.

But now the Giants are back on top again, having taken a half-game lead. And while they still have their problems, the Dodgers have come face-to-face with a big issue that we mentioned way back when: starting pitching.

As our own Danny Knobler pointed out, L.A.'s starters didn't pick up the slack during Kershaw's absence. They were mostly mediocre. Now they've become downright bad. After Brett Anderson paced the Dodgers to an 11-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday with six runs allowed in three innings, L.A.'s starters now have a 7.03 ERA in August.

This feels like a reckoning. Outside of Kershaw, the Dodgers rotation was a motley crew coming into the season. Five months later, not much has changed. Kenta Maeda has been a nice find, but Scott Kazmir has been up and down and Anderson, Brandon McCarthy, Alex Wood, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Julio Urias, Ross Stripling and Bud Norris have been a mixed bag of injured and ineffective.

Kenley Jansen leads a top-notch bullpen.
Kenley Jansen leads a top-notch bullpen.Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

As such, the only real surprise is that the Dodgers rotation hasn't been a team-crippling liability. As Corinne Landrey noted at FanGraphs, Yasmani Grandal has done his part by framing everything for strikes. Otherwise, it speaks to how good the team's offense and bullpen have been. The latter, in particular, is arguably the best in the National League.

With those assets being as good as they are, it would be hyperbole to say the Dodgers can't make it to October without Kershaw or Hill at their best. They're in a comfortable spot in the wild-card race as things stand, and the Giants aren't going to run away and hide with the division race.

But after three straight NL West titles, simply getting into the postseason is a mere formality for the Dodgers. It means nothing if they don't go far into October. If they can pair Kershaw and Hill with Maeda, their strong offense and (finally) a strong bullpen, they'll have everything they need to do just that.

Again, it can't be taken for granted that Kershaw and Hill will save the Dodgers. But if nothing else, the timing works in their favor. This far from October, there's plenty of time for the two of them to get back on the mound and back in rhythm. Had L.A. gotten the good news a week or two from now, the clock would be ticking a lot faster.

Having Kershaw and Hill arrive at the last minute and leading the charge isn't how the Dodgers drew it up. But they'll take it.

      

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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