LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers tabbed Clayton Kershaw to start Game 2 of the National League Division Series against the Nationals on Friday, which is as much about Game 2 as it is about a potential Game 5 back at Dodger Stadium next week.
The Dodgers are holding Hyun-Jin Ryu and his NL-leading 2.32 ERA for Game 3 in Washington, a decision that was informed, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said, by Kershaw’s previous bullpen work in the postseason. But besides making Kershaw available for relief in a Game 5, pitching him before the series shifts east also opens the possibility of a pivot away from the Dodgers’ plan to start Walker Buehler in a Game 5 on Wednesday, should that idea become attractive. For what it’s worth, Kershaw would be on regular rest that day.
Such are the decisions facing a team with two NL Cy Young Award candidates in Buehler and Ryu, and another pitcher in Kershaw who has won that award three times and finished among the top five for it seven times.
“You could potentially put all three of those guys in the hat and roll out your 1, 2 and 3 starters,” Roberts said.
Roberts said he felt “very good” about the plan the Dodgers put in place.
“Just appreciating what Clayton has done out of the ‘pen when you're talking about Game 5,” he said. “You dig a little bit deeper and understand that Clayton has done it, he's done well. You've got to prepare for a Game 5 if it does happen, so what best prepares you for that? And that's Clayton pitching Game 2 and Walker having the opportunity to pitch twice in this series.”
Kershaw has made six postseason appearances out of the bullpen, the last in Game 7 of last year’s NL Championship Series to close out the Brewers, and before that in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series against the Astros, when he pitched four scoreless innings after Yu Darvish faltered. The last time he pitched in relief during the Division Series was against these same Nationals in ‘16, when Kershaw started Games 1 and 4, then came back two days later and recorded a two-out save in Game 5 to send the Dodgers to the NLCS.
“I hope it's not that situation [this year], because I was 1, 4 and 5, so I don't envision that happening,” he said. “You know how you feel coming out of starts. And this season, I felt great the whole year after those first couple weeks, so I don't think I'll have any problem bouncing back. I'm not really focused on that right now though. I'm focused on [Game 2], obviously. But if there is a Game 5 and I'm asked to be in the ‘pen, I'll be ready for that, for sure.”
Kershaw faced Washington once during the regular season and was typically effective, allowing two runs on three hits in six innings of a Dodgers victory on July 27 at Nationals Park. He struck out nine in that game and held the Nationals to one hit in five scoreless innings after allowing two runs in the first.
Two of Washington’s bench bats have given Kershaw the most trouble over the years. Veterans Gerardo Parra and Ryan Zimmerman are a combined 23-for-69 against the left-hander. Anthony Rendon is 5-or-19 with no extra-base hits. Rookie Juan Soto has one at-bat against Kershaw.
Kershaw last pitched Sunday, coming out of the bullpen in the Dodgers’ season finale against the Giants to toss 18 pitches as part of a clean fifth inning that included a matchup against San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner. Kershaw finished the year 16-5 with a 3.03 ERA but hit a few bumps in September during which he owned a 3.47 ERA and allowed five home runs across four starts.
Kershaw’s much-discussed postseason resume has included many ups and downs. His most recent October outings were a pair of losses to the Red Sox in the 2018 World Series, giving him a 4.32 ERA over 152 career postseason innings.
“I think the biggest thing I can say is that every year that you make the postseason, you realize that it's one less year on your career, one less year that you have a chance to win,” Kershaw said, “so you become more grateful and more appreciative every single time you get a chance to win a World Series. I think that becomes more apparent, because who knows how long I'm going to get to play this game? And who knows how long I get to play here? But it's a special thing to get to go to the postseason seven years in a row and nine years out of however many years I played.
“So, I’m grateful. But also maybe with each passing year, maybe [there is] a little bit more sense of urgency, for sure.”
Verdugo unlikely to return
Outfielder Alex Verdugo, out the past two months with a lower back injury, is “very unlikely” to return in time for any postseason action, Roberts said.
Verdugo said he still held out hope he could return, but conceded he still has pain when he swings a bat. He has been able to resume running.
Hill not available for Game 1
Game 4 starter Rich Hill threw a bullpen session before Game 1, eliminating the possibility of him pitching in relief in Game 1, which was under consideration. Ryu, who rarely throws bullpen sessions, followed Hill to the mound on Thursday. Ryu’s Game 3 start on Sunday will be eight days after his final start of the regular season.