By Jon Weisman
A day ahead of his National League Division Series start, a smiling Clayton Kershaw looked relaxed at his Q&A with reporters — and admitted he’s feeling more relaxed as well.
He owes that relative levity to the all-hands-on-deck Dodgers, who showed in 2016 that they can win even with their ace sidelined from late June until September with a herniated disk. Calling this the “most complete” team he has been on, Kershaw said he doesn’t feel he needs to carry the Dodgers by himself.
“I think in the past I’ve definitely felt that pressure more,” Kershaw said, heading into his fourth straight postseason and the sixth of his career. “But this year’s been a little bit different for me, just as far as having to watch on the sidelines for two months (and) understanding how good our team is. … I think it’s really kind of hit home for me a little bit, as I’ve come back, that 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.
“Obviously I have a job to do and I understand that,” he added, “but … we’re such a team that I feel like I can rely on those guys and, likewise, they can rely on me. It’s just a different feeling than I’ve had in the past.”
As usual, questions about whether Kershaw will start a potential Game 4 on three days’ rest have begun before he has even thrown his first Game 1 pitch. Among the follow-ups: Did the time off to rest his back deliver a side benefit of resting his arm?
“I think 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. Felt like the ball’s coming out fine, no matter how many innings are under my belt. … I don’t think it’s going to make that big of a difference. But, you know, I feel good now, so that’s good.”
Earlier, Dave Roberts said that if Kershaw doesn’t start Game 4, the Dodgers “have a lot of confidence” in Julio Urías, but the manager called the Kershaw option “a good thing” to have.
“It’s more on how his start goes tomorrow — usage, stress — and come Game 4, where we’re at in the series,” Roberts said. “Probably the No. 1 (consideration) is physical. I think that obviously if the trainers and doctors don’t feel that it makes sense for Clayton, then that takes it off the table.”
Roberts described when he thought Kershaw was himself again.
“It was probably (at) the Yankee game in New York,” Roberts said. “There was a rain delay, a couple rain delays. And for him to go underneath in the tunnel, throw simulated innings, and then to finish that start and to get his pitch count up — and the next day, to come back and say, ‘I feel the normal soreness that I normally would,’ I think that was a big exhale for all of us.
“You know, we tried to approach his whole season once Clayton went down that there’s a good possibility that he might not be back. But after that start, then we were much more confident.”
Since his return, Kershaw has experimented with a lower arm angle inspired by teammate Rich Hill that Kershaw said “looked kind of fun,” perhaps partly out of nostalgia.
“I used to do that in high school,” Kershaw said. “I used to pitch that way a little bit. And so I gave it a shot in the bullpen a few times, and I threw it, I think, against the Rockies for the first time, a couple pitches.
“I mean, it’s not like I’m going to be down there for 20, 30 pitches in a game, but just to have a different angle and maybe use it a handful of times, (it) can’t hurt.”
Though Kershaw has always emphasized that he faces opposing hitters, not the opposing pitcher, his respect for Washington Game 1 starter Max Scherzer was evident.
“He’s a tremendous competitor,” Kershaw said. “I mean, he always wants the ball. He’s always fired up for big games. And then the stuff, I think, is probably the second thing. His fastball is one of the best fastballs, if not the best fastball from a starter that you’ll see. I think I’m not a big sabermetric guy, but the old spin rate thing, it probably plays true to him more than anything. He gets so many swings and misses on his fastball … every pitch, changeup, slider — he’s throwing curveballs now.
“It’s not an easy at-bat. I’ve never faced him, but just watching guys swing, it’s like you just can’t square up that heater. So I don’t expect for it to be a blowout tomorrow by any means.”
When Scherzer was asked what he admires about Kershaw, his first answer was “everything,” before focusing on Kershaw’s control.
“He’s not walking anybody,” Scherzer said. “I think that’s probably the first and foremost thing, that he’s absolutely attacking you with all of his stuff.”
For his part, Scherzer said he actually looked forward to the challenge of facing Kershaw.
“It’s what you play this game for,” Scherzer said. “You don’t measure yourself against the worst; you measure yourself against the best. And I think this is best opponent I could possibly face with the Dodgers and Kershaw throwing. … This is something you always remember. You want to be in these situations, because this is too much fun, to be able to go up and face a team and pitcher of this caliber.”