Clayton Kershaw pitched for the first time since May 1 tonight against the Phillies, and at a glance, he looked alright. After sitting on the DL for a month with a left bicep* injury, the Dodger ace went for five innings of work and got five strikeouts, with the only run scoring on a play where Maikel Franco didn’t even touch home plate.
But anyone watching the radar gun would be right to raise an eyebrow, because Kershaw’s pitches were disturbingly slow. Kershaw’s fastball was never his best pitch, and its velocity has declined as he’s aged. But struggling to even throw 90 miles per hour is a big red flashing warning light that something might still be wrong with him.
But Kershaw, crafty that he is, found a way around his lackluster four-seamer in the fifth inning: Stop trying to throw it. In his final three outs of work, Kershaw completely abandoned his sputtering heater and went exclusively to the breaking pitches, striking out the side with what otherwise would have seemed like a desperate survival tactic.
In a way, this makes the whole comeback start still pretty impressive. Even with a major limitation, one of the best pitchers in baseball dug into a bag of tricks and came out unscathed. Only a select few pitchers could ever dominate without hitting the 90s, and Kershaw made a couple of guys look very confused with his off-speed stuff.
It’s not exactly good news for the already kind of screwed up Dodgers when their best pitcher has to resort to some Bugs Bunny shit to make it through five innings. But it could have been a lot worse.
Update (10:53 p.m. ET): Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Kershaw’s back tightened up during the start, and he’s going to have an MRI. So, uh, it might actually be worse.
*Correction (12:37 a.m. ET): The article originally stated that Kershaw had been on the DL for a back injury. Kershaw has a history of back injuries, but the reason for his most recent DL stint was biceps tendinitis.