LOS ANGELES -- Dodgers manager Dave Roberts put it best: Everything just makes more sense for Los Angeles when Clayton Kershaw is on the mound every fifth day.
After being sidelined for more than a month with a left shoulder injury, Kershaw was back atop the Dodger Stadium mound on Thursday night, and looked every bit like the pitcher who was leading the National League in just about every stat before his injury.
Kershaw allowed one run and struck out four over five solid innings in Dodgers' 2-1 win over the Rockies in the series opener.
“It was great to be back,” Kershaw said. “You want to be a part of what’s going on here. You want to help your team win. It was a great feeling, good to be back out there, good to be at Dodger Stadium again. I don’t take for granted those opportunities.”
Kershaw threw 67 pitches (45 for strikes), but said the most important part was that he got through five innings. He went just four innings during his last simulated game last week. For the Dodgers, that was enough for Kershaw -- who hadn’t pitched since June 27 -- in his return, as the important thing for the club is to keep the left-hander healthy through October.
In fact, Roberts acknowledged that he was “holding my breath” throughout Kershaw’s outing given the nature of the injury the ace is coming back from. The Dodgers also want to see how Kershaw feels on Friday.
“I just think we need to make sure he takes the ball every fifth or sixth day,” Roberts said. “I know Clayton wants to be a part of this really bad. He knows how special this group is and he wants to contribute. … I think for him, my thought is just be yourself, you don’t have to do it on your own. Today he sort of did for five innings. But we scored late. It was a good day all around.”
Outside of a solo homer in the fifth to Elehuris Montero, the likely first-ballot Hall of Famer was sharp in his return. His best frame came in the second inning, when Kershaw worked around a one-out double from Alan Trejo to strike out the other three batters he faced.
Kershaw used his usual four-seamer, curveball and slider mix to keep the Rockies’ hitters off-balance for most of the night. Colorado had just four hard-hit balls against him.
The 35-year-old southpaw also broke out his changeup, throwing the pitch three times, including for a strikeout against Montero in the second. Before Thursday, Kershaw had thrown the changeup just eight times this season, and only 19 times since the beginning of the 2022 season.
The last time Kershaw used the changeup to strike out an opposing hitter was on May 31, 2018, against Phillies infielder César Hernández.
“I threw it four times, and it’s like I threw it a million times,” Kershaw joked. “I threw four of them, three of them were actually OK. So I don’t know, maybe I’ll try to use it maybe four, five times a game, something like that.”
Offensively, the Dodgers didn’t get much going against Rockies left-hander Ty Blach through six innings. In the seventh, however, Max Muncy was able to come through with a game-tying solo homer off Blach. It was only the 10th homer allowed to a left-handed hitter in Blach’s six-year MLB career.
In the eighth, the Dodgers put more pressure on the Rockies’ bullpen and were able to break through and take the lead when Muncy drew a bases-loaded walk against right-hander Daniel Bard.
For the Dodgers, the importance of having Kershaw back healthy and in the rotation can’t be overstated. Having the left-hander start every fifth game gives the Dodgers a level of stability they lacked since he went on the injured list. It’s no coincidence the starting rotation posted a 6.18 ERA in July with Kershaw sidelined.
Over the next two months, the Dodgers will continue to monitor Kershaw’s health and lean on him when they need to. Even after all these years, Kershaw is still the pitcher that sets the tone. He’ll be tasked with leading them down the stretch, especially come postseason time.
“Any time 22 is on the mound, you have a good feeling about how the game is gonna turn out, and I think it’s a boost for everyone in this clubhouse,” Muncy said. “It’s just fun to be on the same field as that guy.”