WASHINGTON -- As the staff ace and the man who gets the ball for Game 1 of the National League Division Series Friday night (5:30 p.m. ET/2:30 PT on FS1) against the Nationals, Clayton Kershaw will once again shoulder a massive burden for the Dodgers in the postseason.By now, he's
WASHINGTON -- As the staff ace and the man who gets the ball for Game 1 of the National League Division Series Friday night (5:30 p.m. ET/2:30 PT on FS1) against the Nationals, Clayton Kershaw will once again shoulder a massive burden for the Dodgers in the postseason.
By now, he's used to that.
And -- having watched as his teammates catapulted the Dodgers to a fourth straight division title, largely without his services -- that burden doesn't seem quite as large as it once did.
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"In the past I've definitely felt that pressure more," said Kershaw, who returned from a back injury in September. "But this year's been a little bit different for me, just as far as having to watch on the sidelines for two months, understanding how good our team is. ... I can definitely be a part of this and definitely help and definitely be a factor in winning. But I don't have to be the factor. We have so many guys that can do so many different things, that it's not all on me."
Kershaw wasn't shy in calling the 2016 edition of the Dodgers "the most complete team" he's played for.
"Maybe the most belief, as well, that we are complete -- which is almost as important," he added.
Of course, regardless of how "complete" the Dodgers' postseason roster looks, it's Kershaw in the spotlight entering Friday's duel with Nationals ace Max Scherzer.
Perhaps no pitcher in baseball has had his October fortunes dissected as much as Kershaw. And his performance on the game's biggest stage is certainly a mixed bag.
By now, most fans are well aware of his duds against the Cardinals in 2013 and '14. But he's also twirled quite a few October gems, including his most recent outing -- seven innings of one-run ball against the Mets in the Game 4 of the NLDS a year ago.
"As far as digging into his successes or certain starts that probably didn't go his way, I don't read too much into it and haven't looked back on it," said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. "I don't think it has any bearing on this postseason -- the start tomorrow. And I really don't think Clayton cares either."
Sure, Kershaw isn't focusing energy on those past outings. But he's certainly learned from them.
"I don't know how many starts I've had in the regular season, but [it's] hundreds," Kershaw said. "You don't have that opportunity in the postseason. So you've got to make it count. And the bad ones stand out more, for sure."
Perhaps notably, Kershaw will be entering the 2016 playoffs with fewer innings than any season since 2009. He's clearly still the same ace -- as evidenced by his 1.69 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 21 starts this season. Only, now he's pitching into October without quite so much wear and tear on his invaluable left arm.
Thing is, he doesn't view that as an advantage.
"Common sense probably says that," Kershaw said. "But at the same time, I've never had any problems physically in October. In years past, I've always felt 100 percent, arm's always felt good. [I] felt like the ball's coming out fine no matter how many innings are under my belt."
Provided Kershaw feels healthy following his Friday start, it's likely the Dodgers ask him to pitch on three days' rest in Game 4 of the NLDS. He's done that in each of the three previous seasons to much success, posting a 1.89 ERA with 23 strikeouts in those outings.
Roberts didn't commit to Kershaw as his Game 4 starter just yet. But he sounded comfortable with the notion of doing so if the situation dictates as much.
Asked when, exactly, Roberts knew he had a fully healthy Kershaw back in the fold, the Dodgers first-year skipper pointed to his five scoreless frames in the Bronx in mid-September. It was then he knew Kershaw was himself.
Obviously, that was the best-case scenario.
"We tried to approach his whole season, once Clayton went down, that there was a good possibility that he might not be back," Roberts said. "But after that start, we were much more confident."
Having seen up close what his teammates are capable of, so is Kershaw.
AJ Cassavell is in his sixth season as a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.