October 13, 2020 | 10:00am | Updated October 13, 2020 | 12:30am
Clayton Kershaw’s close-to-worst season was still better than most pitchers’ best, but the Dodgers ace appeared as if he had slipped a notch in 2019.
At 32 years old, there were questions whether the future Hall of Famer, with a history of back problems, was in decline. Those questions dissipated as this abbreviated 60-game sprint progressed, with Kershaw regaining form as a National League Cy Young Award contender.
He likely won’t receive that honor (which would be his fourth), but the numbers he amassed, including a 2.16 ERA and 0.840 WHIP in 10 starts during the regular season, indicate he’s still special.
The Dodgers will unleash that weapon Tuesday in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series against the Braves, in which Kershaw is scheduled to face rookie Ian Anderson. The Dodgers lost 5-1 in Game 1 on Monday night.
Kershaw has won his two starts this postseason. He pitched a three-hit shutout over eight innings against the Brewers in the first round before surviving a shakier performance against the Padres in the NLDS, in which he permitted three earned runs over six innings (Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer each homered against him).
Kershaw’s so-called down year in 2019 had included a 3.03 ERA — his highest mark since his 2008 rookie season.
“As far as pure stuff, the ball is just more sharp,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Monday. “The fastball life in the zone, the slider the last three turns has had the shape and the depth, the late depth that it typically has, and then the curveball has that break that we’ve grown to really appreciate with his curveball, and also, now you are kind of layering in that sequencing.
“So he’s just kind of done everything we have asked, and this is as good as he’s thrown in quite some time for this extended period of time.”
Kershaw is familiar with these Braves, but not as much as he would like, after a season in which regionalized scheduling precluded the Dodgers from playing outside the NL West and AL West.
But Kershaw said he is more interested in the swings opposing hitters have taken in recent weeks than how they have fared against him historically.
“I don’t really look too much about what I have done against guys, personal history-wise,” Kershaw said. “I think there needs to be some recency bias as far as what they have done in the box. I faced these guys two years ago in the playoffs, and they have some of the same guys, but obviously there’s a lot of guys different, so not a lot you can glean from that, but try to watch what they have done in the past month or so and see what they are doing and try to adjust accordingly.”
If Kershaw wanted to feel old, Braves ace Max Fried — who started Game 1 on Monday — grew up in the Los Angeles area idolizing the Dodgers ace.
Fried has shown the makings of a potential elite lefty after a season in which he pitched to a 2.25 ERA in 11 starts.
“I remember when I was coming up, I didn’t have the pitches that [Fried] had, and I like watching him throw against the teams I’m about to face,” Kershaw said. “He’s evolved a lot.”
The missing line from Kershaw’s résumé is “World Series champion.” If the Dodgers are going to reach those heights, they will likely need Kershaw’s left arm to help attain it.
Already, Los Angeles has crowned a champion in October, with the Lakers winning the NBA Finals on Sunday.
“I am very happy for them and for the city of LA,” Kershaw said. “It’s pretty cool to see what they were able to do, and they spent 93 days in that bubble, so I am glad they won. That’s a long time in that thing, so I am just happy for them, and it’s very cool to be in the same city as that.”