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Kershaw may not be back at Cy Young level

Dodgers don't expect too much too soon, will keep ace on pitch limit
MLB.com @kengurnick

MIAMI -- Since Clayton Kershaw last pitched for the Dodgers on June 26, they are 38-24. They have gained 13 games in the standings, stormed into first place, acquired Bud Norris, Rich Hill, Josh Reddick, Jesse Chavez, Josh Fields and Carlos Ruiz, and traded away A.J. Ellis.

On Friday night, Kershaw returns from almost 2 1/2 months on the shelf with a herniated disk to start against the Marlins ace Jose Fernandez and Kershaw's old manager, Don Mattingly. This week, Mattingly said Fernandez is "on that route" to becoming a Kershaw-type stalwart. That's high praise.

MIAMI -- Since Clayton Kershaw last pitched for the Dodgers on June 26, they are 38-24. They have gained 13 games in the standings, stormed into first place, acquired Bud Norris, Rich Hill, Josh Reddick, Jesse Chavez, Josh Fields and Carlos Ruiz, and traded away A.J. Ellis.

On Friday night, Kershaw returns from almost 2 1/2 months on the shelf with a herniated disk to start against the Marlins ace Jose Fernandez and Kershaw's old manager, Don Mattingly. This week, Mattingly said Fernandez is "on that route" to becoming a Kershaw-type stalwart. That's high praise.

Rick Honeycutt has been the pitching coach and voice of reason since Kershaw's debut, through three National League Cy Young Award-winning seasons and the NL Most Valuable Player Award of 2014. That was the year Kershaw overcame a strained teres major muscle sustained Opening Day in Australia, the only other time Kershaw was on the disabled list.

Kershaw was 11-2 with a 1.57 ERA and heading for another NL Cy Young Award before his last start. Honeycutt cautions that even Kershaw can be rusty from inaction, so don't expect too much too soon.

"To be off two months and not be in a competitive situation, everybody has to be conscious that he's not in midseason form," said Honeycutt. "He wouldn't be going out there unless he felt well enough to do it. At the same time, he still has not been in a competitive situation at the big league level, using all of his pitches. At that time in '14, it was the curveball that was not as good as it can be. That's not only a control pitch, it's a feel pitch and a release point."

For purposes of managing expectations, recall that Kershaw threw seven scoreless innings in his first start off the disabled list in 2014, but he then lost three of his next four starts -- including a seven-run, 1 2/3-inning disaster in Arizona -- before rewriting the record books.

"In '14, we were able to do more [Minor League] rehab starts," Honeycutt said, noting that Kershaw has had only one last week, which lasted three innings. "The timing allowed him [in '14] to work up to 60 and 90 [pitches] in the Minors. This time, it's a little different because we're going back in games before we reached that level.

Video: Kershaw discusses his three-inning rehab start

"The understanding this time is there is a progression that we have to do. In that respect, I think we've got time and we have to be very conscious of that situation, no matter how well he's pitching."

In other words, Kershaw will be on an unspecified but rigid pitch/innings limit. Winning on Friday is important. Having Kershaw on the mound in October is essential, and that is the real goal here. Honeycutt said Kershaw understands there isn't time for another setback.

"If we go past X, it could lead to X, and we don't have the time to go backwards," Honeycutt said. "I feel right now he's got a really good understanding. In a perfect world, you'd say, 'Go pitch with a [Minor League] team in the playoffs and continue to build up.' At the same time, would you rather have his 60 pitches in this game or 75 in another? That's the give and take."

The Dodgers tentatively have Kershaw mapped out for four regular-season starts.

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

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Los Angeles Dodgers, Clayton Kershaw