One of the first things they taught us in journalism school was that in our lives as professional reporters, we were going to be spun around to the point of dizziness, on a minute-by-minute, day-by-day basis by people trying desperately to control the message, and that we always had to be wise to the motivations behind whatever information a source might be feeding us at any given moment.
The trick, as I quickly found out once I left college and entered the real world of journalism, is to know when you’re NOT being spun — to not have your guard up so much that you completely whiff when someone is feeding you something that is completely on the mark and reliable. Sometimes, the information coming from the sources, no matter how suspicious or implausible it may sound, is the actual truth — or at least someone’s honest-to-goodness perception of it.
I’m going to make a judgement call tonight that what was emanating from the Dodgers clubhouse about Clayton Kershaw, from both the former National League Cy Young Award winner himself and his manager, Don Mattingly, was completely legit. Because in both cases, it came with an acknowledgement that Kershaw hadn’t been himself in his two previous starts, and at least in the case of Kershaw, that acknowledgement was a first.
And in both cases, it came with a heartfelt belief that after giving up a second home run to Reds right fielder Jay Bruce to begin the fourth inning — the first two homers Kershaw has given up to a left-handed hitter ALL YEAR — Kershaw suddenly seemed to find himself and, in the words of Mattingly, he “righted the ship.”
The numbers sort of back that up — emphasis on sort of.
Kershaw bounced back from Bruce’s second homer to retire 12 of the next 15 batters before handing the game off to the Dodgers bullpen, which eventually coughed up the game to stick the Dodgers (83-59) with their first four-game losing streak since they dropped their first eight games in the month of May.
If you were watching the first three innings tonight, you could be forgiven for thinking Kershaw looked completely discombobulated. He was doing all kinds of un-Kershaw-like things, starting with that first home run by Bruce and including walking opposing pitcher Homer Bailey with one out in the third after getting ahead 0-2, and then immediately giving up a single to Shin-Soo Choo and hitting Chris Heisey after getting ahead of both of them 0-2, and he would’ve given up a two-run single to Joey Votto after getting ahead of him 0-2 if first baseman Adrian Gonzalez wouldn’t have been positioned EXACTLY where Votto’s frozen-rope line drive was hit. There also was a questionable balk thrown in — Kershaw was still questioning it after the game — when he tried to pick Bailey off first with virtually the exact move he had used to pick Choo off in the first inning.
Kershaw then got out of that jam by getting Brandon Phillips to ground out, only to give up Bruce’s second homer to start the fourth.
From there, though, Kershaw began to look like himself. And himself is exactly what the Dodgers need him to be going forward. Oh sure, there is plenty of time. They playoffs are still more than three weeks away. But depending on how Mattingly lines up the rotation for the playoffs, Kershaw wouldn’t have had that much time to right himself if he hadn’t done so tonight.
The real test, of course, will be whether he can carry it into his next start, and the three remaining regular-season starts after that.
Here’s my best guess at what lies ahead for Kershaw leading up to the playoffs: he’ll start on Friday night against the Giants and then on Sept. 18 at Arizona. After that, it gets tricky for Mattingly, because the Dodgers are off on Sept. 23, and then there are THREE off-days between the end of the regular season and the start of the N.L. Division Series on Oct. 3. Kershaw probably would go on Sept. 24 in San Francisco and then make one final, abbreviated start (think three innings) on the final weekend. He could either make that abbreviated start on short rest on Sept. 28 against Colorado or make it on Sept. 29 against the Rockies and then start the playoff opener on short rest — or, if Mattingly decides to keep everything the way it is, he could start Zack Greinke in the opener and Kershaw in Game 2. But honestly, I can’t see that happening, even if Greinke is arguably the better pitcher right now.
Anyway, to summarize, I’m buying Mattingly’s and Kershaw’s assessments of Kershaw’s final four innings tonight — for now. But I’m doing so with a cautious eye. Granted, Kershaw has set a ridiculously high bar for himself, so that even after a performance like this one when he gives up two runs on four hits over seven innings, we are all poking around trying to figure out what’s wrong with him, even wondering if it might be something physical — although I think we can at least lay that notion to rest.
But I’m anxious to see what Kershaw delivers on Friday night. If it’s a continuation of the way he finished up tonight, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. If it isn’t, well, the Dodgers may have a problem, without a lot of time for fixing it.