As the Los Angeles Dodgers' best and most acclaimed player, Clayton Kershaw will be pitching under some heavy scrutiny in October. That's a function of his glossy resume, $215 million contract and checkered postseason history. Judging from Kershaw's penchant for barking at himself beneath his glove during games -- or simulated games -- no one will be tougher on him than he'll be on himself.
Yu Darvish, a pending free agent, is also on the spot as Kershaw's main wingman in the rotation. The Dodgers took the plunge and acquired Darvish from the Texas Rangers on July 31, even after he allowed 10 runs in his trade-deadline showcase. He's 4-3 with a 3.44 ERA as a Dodger, but his best outings have come against the Mets, Padres, Giants and Phillies, who are a combined 106 games below .500. The competition will be stiffer in October.
The two pitchers most likely to slot in behind Kershaw and Darvish in the rotation are less renowned but every bit as motivated. Rich Hill and Alex Wood, left-handers separated by an 11-year age gap, are diligently working toward October in preparation for postseason starts in the No. 3 and No. 4 spots. Even if no one else seems to be paying much attention, the Dodgers are fully aware of how important they are.
As Los Angeles plays out the regular season, questions keep coming at manager Dave Roberts. Corey Seager has a balky elbow that hinders his throwing, and his offensive production has dropped off in September. Yasiel Puig and Roberts are butting heads over the outfielder's lack of focus. Curtis Granderson and Yasmani Grandal are hitting a combined .151 (18-for-119) in September, and the Dodgers are moving Kenta Maeda from the rotation to the bullpen to help fill the void created by September fades from Pedro Baez and Ross Stripling.
The Dodgers' rotation depth bodes well for October, but the starters need to find the success they had earlier this season. L.A.'s starters rank ninth in the National League with a 4.35 ERA in September, while the Dodgers have logged a 10-16 record this month.
The franchise's recent October history shows that poor performances at the back of the rotation can be a severe drag on postseason ambitions.
The Dodgers have appeared in 30 postseason games, winning 13, since capturing the first of five straight division titles in 2013. Kershaw posted a 4-6 record with a 4.28 ERA in 12 starts during that stretch. Zack Greinke was uniformly excellent in the playoffs during his tenure with the team (2-2 with a 2.38 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 41-to-5 in six October outings), and Hyun-Jin Ryu threw two excellent games around one clunker during the 2013 and 2014 playoffs.
The other pitchers? Not so much. Julio Urias, Maeda, Brett Anderson, Ricky Nolasco and Hill made a combined nine postseason starts from 2013 to 2016 with largely nondescript results: Their cumulative output consisted of a 6.88 ERA in 34 innings and a lot of early hooks by Roberts and his predecessor, Don Mattingly. When Hill threw six shutout innings to beat the Cubs in Game 3 of the 2016 NLCS, he became the only starter in that group to go more than five innings in an outing.
Roberts and his staff have reason to hope for better this time. Hill is a year removed from the blister problems that kept Roberts on the top step of the dugout in the final weeks of the 2016 season. Since the All-Star break, Hill has struck out 86 hitters and walked 18 in 67 2/3 innings, and he has held opposing lineups to a .206 batting average in that span.
Hill's 89 mph average velocity ranks among the pokiest in the majors. But he has pinpoint control and complements it with one of baseball's best curveballs. His fastball also gets on hitters with deceptive alacrity.
"Richie throws the hardest 90 I've ever seen,'' Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes said recently. "Hitters seem to have trouble with it sometimes. He'll throw a pitch, and I'll look at the radar gun, and it will surprise me because it looks like it was in the mid-90s.''
Hill, 37, has traveled a long, hard road to get to this point. He has pitched for eight teams in the majors, and five of those stops -- with the Angels, Indians, Yankees, Orioles and Athletics -- were for one-year cameos. Hill also pitched briefly with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League in 2015 before working his way back to the majors and landing a three-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers in December.
Hill and his wife, Caitlin, had to cope with the death of their infant son, Brooks, from multiple medical issues in the spring of 2014, and he has since embraced a "live for today'' mantra that precludes him from making assumptions or taking anything for granted.
Even when Hill suffered one of MLB's most crushing losses in recent memory -- pitching nine no-hit innings in Pittsburgh in late August and losing the game and the no-no on a Josh Harrison home run in the 10th -- he treated it like just another day at the yard. While his teammates agonized over their failure to score a run on his behalf, Hill talked about getting back in the gym the next day, as if it were just a garden-variety loss.
"You can take that Pittsburgh game, or any game I've pitched within the last three years, and it's a completely different mindset than when I was 25 or 26 or 27 years old in the big leagues,'' Hill said. "Back then, it was more about the result than it was about the moment. Instead of trying to focus on having the ball come out of [my] hand the way I wanted, I was more caught up in what the end result was going to be.
"At end of day, it's about competing and bringing that intensity. To me, that's always going to outweigh the scouting reports or anything on paper. When you have that conviction behind the pitch, it doesn't matter how hard you're throwing or what the radar gun says.''
Before Tuesday night, it appeared that Wood was a lock to fill the fourth spot in L.A.'s postseason rotation. But Roberts is still weighing the alternatives and has declined to fully commit to Wood as an October starter. One option for the Dodgers is to shift Wood to the bullpen and start Ryu, who recently took a line drive off his left forearm and threw a 34-pitch bullpen session Tuesday. The Dodgers could also use Kershaw on short rest in the postseason, although that might be risky given his recent history of back issues.
Wood, 26, broke into pro ball with the Atlanta organization as a second-round pick out of Georgia in 2012 before heading to Los Angeles as part of a three-team, 13-player trade in July 2015. In the estimation of one scout, Wood is a changed pitcher from the kid who showed some early flashes with the Braves. His radar gun readings have ticked up, and he has benefited from greater use of his changeup in Los Angeles.
"It's a completely different approach,'' the scout said. "They tried to make him into a Tom Glavine, sink-and-cut type of guy in Atlanta. Now he's airing it out more, and he's like, 'Here it is.' He's funky.''
Wood went 10-0 with a 1.67 ERA in the first half and made his first All-Star team, but he has hit a few bumps since the break. He made two trips to the disabled list this season with an inflammation of the sternoclavicular joint, which connects the clavicle to the sternum, and he has alternately struggled with his command and his radar gun readings.
"It's been a little bit of an evolution,'' Wood said. "The first couple of starts after the break, I thought my stuff went down a little bit. I was off a little bit mechanically. Then you go through a phase where your stuff plays up, but it's your command. I'm keeping the big picture in mind. As long as my stuff is good, I feel like I'll be fine.''
If the Arizona Diamondbacks survive the wild-card game and play the Dodgers in the NL Division Series, they'll throw out some formidable right-handed bats against Los Angeles' predominantly lefty rotation. But the matchup isn't quite as advantageous for Arizona as it might appear. Despite the presence of Paul Goldschmidt, J.D. Martinez and A.J. Pollock in the lineup, the Diamondbacks rank only 10th in the National League with a .735 team OPS vs. lefty pitching.
And the platoon splits for Los Angeles' 3 and 4 starters are surprisingly good. Hill has allowed a .195/.258/.344 slash line to righties compared with .260/.408/.448 against lefties, and Wood's splits are almost dead even. Lefty hitters have a .607 OPS against him, compared with .625 from righties. Ryu, who is also left-handed, has a pronounced case of reverse splits this season. He has yielded a .945 OPS to lefty hitters and a .700 OPS to righties.
As the playoffs approach and Roberts finalizes his postseason plans, the principals are all dealing with the sense of anticipation in their own way. Hill is immersed in his competitive cocoon, while Wood is taking notice of everything around him and feeling energized by the tinge of excitement in the air.
They're quietly gearing up for October, while Kershaw and Darvish generate the headlines. But soon enough, everybody will be paying attention.