Last week, Clayton Kershaw printed out copies of Major League Baseball’s postseason bracket for his children. They wanted to pick the winner for each series.
Their choices usually depended on which team had the better uniforms. Kershaw recalled the kids liking the Seattle Mariners’ threads the most. Ultimately, it became about whom they wanted their dad and the Dodgers to face in the World Series.
“Guys, we have to win first,” Kershaw told them.
The Dodgers’ attempt to reach that destination for the fourth time in six years began Tuesday night with Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the San Diego Padres. A year ago, the Dodgers failed without Kershaw. This year, they steamrolled to a second straight season with the most wins in franchise history, and their future Hall of Fame pitcher is ready to start Game 2 on Wednesday night.
Kershaw wasn’t available to help the Dodgers last October because an elbow injury he suffered during the final weekend of the regular season rendered him a spectator. The Dodgers lost in the NL Championship Series to the Atlanta Braves in six games partly because their starting rotation’s gas tank emptied.
Attention then shifted to Kershaw’s cloudy future as a free agent. Would he sign with his hometown Texas Rangers or return to Los Angeles? Would he, after 14 major league seasons, retire?
The official answer arrived the day after MLB’s lockout was lifted when he signed a one-year deal to return to the Dodgers.
In the end, he said retirement wasn’t seriously considered once he knew his elbow was healthy enough for him to pitch in 2022. He acknowledged he seriously considered joining the Rangers, who offered him a multiyear contract, but the pull of competing for another World Series title on a championship favorite was too strong.
So there Kershaw was Tuesday afternoon, sitting through another postseason media session from a podium at Dodger Stadium ahead of his scheduled start.
“Last year, it was disappointing,” Kershaw, 34, said. “You want to be a part of it. You want to be in it regardless — good or bad. You would rather be in it than not in it. You want to be a part of it. That’s why we do this. That’s what makes it fun.”
Just being part of it, in a way, was an accomplishment for Kershaw. The left-hander was one of the majors’ best pitchers during the regular season when healthy. He compiled a 2.28 earned-run average, his lowest since 2016 not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and made his ninth All-Star team. But he wasn’t healthy for the entire 162-game trudge.
He landed on the injured list twice this season, once in May and again in August. Both stints were for back-related injuries and lasted just less than a month. The timing worked in Kershaw’s favor. He attributed the outcome to luck.
“I don’t know if there were adjustments or not,” Kershaw said. “I just think when I got hurt, it was better timing this year. … If you could figure out the injury thing, if anybody could, let me know.”
Kershaw laughed as he spoke. He has been more self-deprecating this season, more relaxed than in the past. He said the change resulted from a discovery: He realized his world didn’t collapse when age and injuries forced him to change his daily routine.
He had become one of the greatest pitchers in history by obsessing over routine. Everything needed to happen a certain way at a certain time. And it worked. Why fix it if it isn’t broken? Then he was forced to adjust and that worked too.
For example, after coming off the injured list Sept. 1, he cut short a late-season bullpen session in extreme heat the day before a start because he was tired. He was fine on the mound the next day. That never would have happened in the past. He would’ve pushed through, perhaps to his detriment.
Kershaw finished the regular season with a dominant seven-start stretch. He gave up seven runs in 41 innings. He compiled 49 strikeouts to eight walks. He reached the 162-game checkpoint healthy.
“This year just kind of worked out timing-wise,” Kershaw said.
With that, Kershaw will pitch in his 11th career postseason. The first nine ended in disappointment, a few with Kershaw at the center of a gut-wrenching collapse. The playoff misfortune seemingly followed him every October, the baseball world waiting for Kershaw to struggle in October again.
That finally changed in 2020. For the first time, there wasn’t a bitter ending. Instead, the Dodgers won the World Series a 20-minute drive from his house in Dallas.
Kershaw acknowledged the breakthrough unloaded a burden he carried. It was the last time he pitched in a playoff game. He’s back Wednesday to make sure his kids picked right.