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Spring debut buoys Kershaw: 'It was awesome'

@kengurnick
February 28, 2020

PHOENIX -- Clayton Kershaw on the mound in a Cactus League game is a win for the Dodgers, no matter what the scoreboard says. The difference from last year to this is like “night and day,” Kershaw said.

PHOENIX -- Clayton Kershaw on the mound in a Cactus League game is a win for the Dodgers, no matter what the scoreboard says.

The difference from last year to this is like “night and day,” Kershaw said.

In the left-hander’s 2020 debut on Friday afternoon, his fastball touched 93 mph (mostly 91-92) and he struck out four Brewers in a hitless 1 2/3 innings. Kershaw was removed after making 26 pitches in the second inning and 37 total for the scoreless outing in a game the Dodgers lost, 6-5.

“I felt great. It was awesome,” said a rejuvenated Kershaw, who also issued back-to-back walks. “It's night and day. Just everything feels good. During the season, I didn't feel bad last year. It was just spring. I had to get over that. To have a full offseason and now have a full spring feeling healthy, it can only help. So I'm encouraged by that for sure.

“I maybe didn't hit one spot today. But just physically I felt like the ball was coming out, felt like the ball was breaking the right way. Now I just have to figure out how to throw strikes. But other than that, it was a good first step, for sure.”

Kershaw opened last season on the injured list, recovered well enough to have a 16-win season and then finished with a disastrous relief appearance when the Dodgers were eliminated from the NLDS by the Nationals.

By contrast to that October night, Friday couldn’t have gone much better.

“I thought he was really good,” said manager Dave Roberts. “To see the execution of the fastball, the swings that you saw, the life of the ball, really good. Didn’t compromise stuff the second inning. Didn’t land the breaking ball, but the sharpness was there. It comes with time. I couldn’t be more satisfied with this outing.”

Kershaw hasn’t had a healthy season since 2015. He was sidelined in ’16 and ’17 with a herniated disc in his lower back. Then came left biceps tendinitis in ’18 and left shoulder inflammation in ’19. By the way, he went 55-18 when he could pitch during those abbreviated seasons.

Kershaw, whose fastball averaged 90.4 mph last year, appeared to take several looks over his shoulder at the radar readings, but his focus afterward was how he felt.

“It's more of just how the ball is coming out,” he said. “It's got that life at the end, which I think it did. Throwing four-seamers so you want the ball to have life up in the zone and feel like it did, maybe even compared to last year, it's a little bit better. So I'll take it.

“The curveball was breaking well. I probably threw one for a strike out of however many, but it did have good snap on it, which is good.”

Roberts said watching a healthy Kershaw contrasts sharply with one pitching through injuries. The lefty never pitched in a game last spring.

“We just can’t appreciate what he was going through the last couple of years with the body,” said Roberts. “Nobody’s going to make excuses, but his demeanor coming into this spring is completely different from years past. Now he can work on fine tuning and still compete and not worry if his body is going to let him down. It was really positive today.”

Catcher Will Smith said the life and carry of Kershaw’s pitches were on point.

“It was coming out really good out of his hand,” said Smith. “He did what he did, he competed, what he always does.”

Also pitching for the Dodgers was likely No. 5 starter Alex Wood, who pitched better in 1 1/3 innings than the three runs charged to him would indicate. They all scored on a three-run single by Mark Mathias off reliever Joe Broussard.

Roberts said he was equally pleased with Wood’s outing.

Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001.