There was neither a red carpet nor a flourish of trumpets at Marlins Park on Friday night, but there might as well have been. For the mighty Clayton Kershaw had returned.
... For three innings.
Out since June 26 with a bad back, the Los Angeles Dodgers ace was going to have a tight pitch count no matter what. The Marlins' tough at-bats hastened the speed with which he racked 'em up, so he was done after throwing 66 pitches and allowing two runs on five hits. The Dodgers mustered just three hits of their own against Jose Fernandez, who struck out 14 in seven innings, before going down 4-1.
So, yeah. It wasn't a prodigal-son-level return for Kershaw. But then, that's what any rational person would have been prepared for after such a long layoff. It's what Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt expected.
"Rick pointed out to expect him to be in midseason form is unfair," Roberts said, per Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register. "We all know Clayton is going to expect himself to be dialed in. We'll see. I think we all hope for the best and expect to see a lot of good things from Clayton. But I think the most important thing, the most encouraging thing is to make sure he gets out of the start feeling well."
There are positive takeaways from the left-hander's oh-so-brief return. After Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball reported Thursday that Kershaw is still "pretty banged up," the biggest is that his back didn't break down. He didn't look like he was struggling physically, and he walked away unharmed when he had to make a tough play on a swinging bunt by Christian Yelich in the third inning.
And right out of the gate, Kershaw showed that the long layoff hadn't robbed him of any electricity. Mike Petriello of MLB.com noted he came out spinning some A-OK heat:
Kershaw also featured some good breaking balls, and he wasn't wild, having 46 strikes out of 66 pitches. With five strikeouts and no walks Friday, he has 150 strikeouts to just nine walks all season. The two runs he allowed only pushed his ERA to 1.89. On balance, his 2016 season is still worth gawking at.
It's not going to have a happy ending unless he and the Dodgers go out on a high note, though. And that's not happening unless Kershaw fixes the ills that plagued him against Miami.
Kershaw may have been throwing strikes, but his three-inning stint is a case study for the difference between throwing strikes and throwing good strikes. He had trouble hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal's targets with his fastball. Considering he was throwing a career-high 63.1 percent of his fastballs in the strike zone before Friday, it's not like Kershaw had this problem before he got hurt.
His breaking stuff, meanwhile, was a mixed bag. Here's Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times:
In so many words: Kershaw looked partially like himself and partially like he had some rust.
I know—I'm also wearing my surprised face. His three National League Cy Youngs, his MVP and his numerous statistical achievements make Kershaw a pitching god among his peers, but a little over two months is a long time to spend on the disabled list. He made just one rehab start that lasted three innings and 34 pitches prior to his major league return, which should count as his second rehab start despite the hype.
The Dodgers can be cool for now. They have 22 regular-season games remaining, giving Kershaw space for up to four more starts. That could give him enough time to build up his stamina and find his bearings.
L.A. holds a 4.5-game lead (as of this writing) in the NL West that the San Francisco Giants seem incapable of erasing, so he could be back to his usual self in time for the National League Division Series.
It'll be time to worry if/when Kershaw isn't up to speed for October. Maybe his back will give out again. Maybe he won't be able to get back in a groove. Or maybe both. One way or the other, it wouldn't be good.
No one doubts the Dodgers can muster up some hits. With runs typically at a premium in October, though, they're not going to go far unless they can pitch. It won't be easy to do that without Kershaw. His absence would up the pressure on Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill. That's not to mention L.A.'s bullpen, which went from a league-leading 2.83 ERA in the first half of the season to a 4.11 ERA in the second half.
Things would look different with a healthy and operational Kershaw in the Dodgers' plans for the postseason. Cliff Corcoran for USA Today noted how well a trio of Kershaw, Maeda and Hill would match up against the Washington Nationals, who just lost Stephen Strasburg to injury indefinitely. That would give the Dodgers the chance to start off on the right foot.
And while having Kershaw in the rotation wouldn't fix the Dodgers' bullpen, it would shorten the bridge to Kenley Jansen on days he pitches. That plus their surging offense could allow for a deep trip into October.
However, Kershaw's thud-like return to action is a reminder that all of this is theoretical until he shakes off the rust. The Dodgers didn't need him to be his best right out of the gate, but they need him to get better as soon as he can.