LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw let go of a slider and winced. It was the top of the second inning on a Sunday afternoon, 99 games into the Dodgers' first-place season and eight days before the non-waiver trade deadline, and Kershaw's back was acting up again.
He finished the inning but came out of the game. He was diagnosed with what the team referred to as tightness on the right side of his lower back and will be placed on the 10-day disabled list.
The Dodgers don't know what's next.
"Obviously, I'm not optimistic, just because I got taken out of the game," Kershaw said after what was ultimately a 5-4, 10-inning walk-off victory over the Atlanta Braves. "But at the same time, it's not as bad as it could be."
The Dodgers won't know that for sure until Monday at the earliest. Kershaw was scheduled to see Dr. Robert Watkins, the team's back specialist, later Sunday afternoon. The Dodgers will be down to four starting pitchers this coming week, as Brandon McCarthy is also headed for the DL with a blister issue, but won't need a fifth starter until Aug. 5.
Kershaw missed two and a half months with a herniated disk in his back last year, and the question is how his latest injury compares.
"I don't want to compare, just because there's so many variables," Kershaw said. "I don't even know."
Kershaw didn't go into detail about his symptoms, only to say that the discomfort "wasn't normal." He also didn't want to speculate as to how much time he would miss. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts is under the impression that Kershaw's latest back issue is strictly muscle-related, adding that Kershaw didn't feel the shooting pain down his leg that is usually caused by a herniated disk.
But the Dodgers are concerned nonetheless.
Kershaw, 29, spoke about it sullenly.
"A lot of frustration," he said before returning to the field to take part in a picnic for the team's family members. "I've done just countless, countless hours of back maintenance and rehab and everything, just trying to stay healthy. I felt really, really good up to this point. So, yeah, there's definitely some frustration."
Kershaw entered his Sunday start primed for his fourth Cy Young Award, leading the majors in wins (15) and ERA (2.07) and tied with Max Scherzer for the National League lead in innings pitched (139 1/3). In his five prior starts, the left-hander had allowed only two earned runs in 36 innings, scattering 22 hits, walking six batters and striking out 51.
Kershaw felt discomfort on his final warm-up pitch before the top of the second, Roberts said. With none on and two out, and facing Atlanta's Tyler Flowers, Kershaw spiked a 1-1 curveball in the dirt and then missed low with a slider. Catcher Austin Barnes noticed Kershaw wasn't getting proper extension on his pitches, and soon he was surrounded.
Roberts, Barnes and assistant trainer Nate Lucero huddled around the ace. Kershaw tossed two warm-up throws and then threw one more ball to Flowers, walking him, but struck out Matt Adams on four pitches. Kershaw walked carefully to the dugout, sat on the bench, collected himself, stood up and walked down the tunnel that leads to the clubhouse, prompting Ross Stripling to warm up in the bullpen.
Kershaw threw only 21 pitches, striking out two, walking one and giving up zero hits in what resulted in the third-shortest start of his career.
Roberts said Kershaw felt "100 percent" heading into that outing.
"Obviously, what he means to our ballclub, how he's been throwing, and his history -- yeah, there's some pause," Roberts added. "We have to do the scans, let the medical guys do their thing and gather information. ... From what I understand, it's more muscular. That sharpness that he felt last year, the herniation-type thing, that's not what he felt today. The scans can prove different, but that's all I've got right now."
Prior to the game, the Dodgers continued to be linked to Rangers ace Yu Darvish, one of few top-flight starting pitchers potentially available before the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31.
Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu is expected to come off the disabled list on Monday, joining a rotation that also includes Alex Wood, Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill. McCarthy probably won't be gone long, either. But the front office will no doubt intensify its ambitions to bolster the pitching staff, either in the rotation or in the bullpen or both.
Sunday's game saw lights-out closer Kenley Jansen blow his first save of the season, despite starting the ninth inning with a three-run lead. But the Dodgers still won for a major league-leading 68th time. They're 10 1/2 games up in the National League West, but their ambitions are aimed directly toward October, at which point they will seek their first World Series title since 1988.
The question now is whether these Dodgers, previously considered baseball's deepest team, are built to sustain a loss like Kershaw's, for however long that might be.
"It sucks losing Kersh, I'm telling you," Jansen said. "It sucks losing him. But we just gotta fight as a team. We gotta pick him up. He's picked us up so many times, so it's time for us to pick him up."