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Before bullpen falters, Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw shows sparks of old self

LOS ANGELES – Clayton Kershaw made his second start since coming off the disabled list for a second time Thursday afternoon – his 301st as a Dodger – with everyone wondering if the three-time Cy Young award winner would be back to true form.

Would he be the unparalleled ace of 2009-2017, that the Dodgers so badly need right now? Or would he be the relative shell of himself that appeared in April, his only full month of play this season?

Thursday’s outing skewed toward the former. It wasn’t perfect, but it will certainly do.

Kershaw threw five innings and 68 pitches (47 of them were strikes). He allowed four hits, one earned run, zero walks, and six strikeouts. His fastball averaged 91.7 miles per hour, topping out at 92.9.

A month ago, the Dodgers took a gamble having Kershaw forgo his Triple-A rehab start and return directly to the major league mound – and it obviously did not pay off.  The second time through the process, however, manager Dave Roberts is being more careful to treat his precious 30-year-old pitcher as such.

Kershaw threw only three innings and 55 pitches in his return on June 23 against the New York Mets, allowing two runs on five hits, with his fastball averaging just under 92 miles per hour; in his only post-DL outing in May, he was averaging just 89.

“He threw the ball well [Saturday],” Roberts said before the team’s 11-5 loss Thursday. “Command wasn’t where he’d like it to be last start, but I think we’ll expect it to be better, and I know he expects that of himself.”

Roberts announced that he’d pull Kershaw at five innings, or around 75 pitches, in his second start. And better Kershaw was.

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw threw five strong innings in his second start back from the disabled list Thursday. (AP Photo)

“It was obviously, after a loss, very positive for us going forward. Clayton was efficient, got up and down five times, and I thought the fastball had life – 92, 93,” Roberts said post-game. “Good command, the curveball was sharp, and the slider was good.”

Kershaw allowed leadoff hits in the first four innings, but escaped unscathed save the combination of a fourth inning Javier Baez double, followed by an Addison Russell single on a slider down in the zone. He struck out three of the last four batters he faced and called it a day, leaving with a 3-1 lead.

“It’s a good team over there,” Kershaw said of the Cubs’ performance. “Thankful that I was able to get through five, but obviously you want to go more.”

Roberts reaffirmed that there was no way that Kershaw – who is highly competitive – was going more than five innings, no matter how good he was.

“He understands that we have to have a plan in place. So we stayed the course,” Roberts said.

Kershaw revealed, however, that he prefers not to pitch under the pressure of knowing his pitch count, and asked that no one update him on it throughout the game.

“It’s hard to pitch like that, so thankful that it didn’t change the way I approached it or anything, but I knew that I was going to be a little bit more limited than I would have liked,” he said. “But hopefully with the next one we’ll be getting pretty close.”

As factors pertain to making that next start, nothing was more important today than how Kershaw physically felt on the mound.

“No loss feels good. But I’ll tell you, when you have your horse throwing the way he did – five innings – and felt really good after, and to know that we can build him up and build on this start, that’s probably the most important thing for our club,” Roberts said. “This loss doesn’t feel good, but I think in the bigger picture, it’s very good.”

“Today was a good step and I’m proving that I’m healthy, and so now my next time out, restrictions should hopefully be pretty close to off,” Kershaw said.

Perhaps nobody knows how a pitcher is doing better than his batterymate. “I didn’t see anything hampering, or laboring, or anything,” said catcher Austin Barnes. “I thought he was the Kershaw I know.”

And for the Dodgers, the Kershaw they know – and not his lesser-seen, slower-throwing alter ego – might be the missing piece that takes them back to the divisional standing they also know, and presumably also love.

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