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Without pitching, Clayton Kershaw still a factor in Dodgers' victory

ATLANTA -- Clayton Kershaw’s value is unmatched, as his current $215 million contract would attest, and it is on days like Thursday when his calming presence will be felt.

Kershaw will start in the series finale at Atlanta, on getaway day. Nothing like having a quality pitcher available to possibly work through an opponent with efficiency, the added bonus being that the team is on the plane and off to the next town at a decent hour.

Yet Kershaw’s presence in Thursday’s game is of even greater importance. With Dodgers starting pitchers combining for just 7 2/3 innings in the first two games of the series against the Braves, the bullpen has been taxed. Rookie Ross Stripling lasted just 3 2/3 innings Wednesday.

It’s a situation that is especially troubling; after Thursday’s game, the Dodgers are headed to Colorado, where bullpens tend to get chewed up and spit out in the light air at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

Kershaw’s task is two-fold Thursday: Dispatch the Braves with efficiency and take the ball into the late innings.

“I think that it is nice knowing you have your ace going the next day,” manager Dave Roberts said. “It was sort of all hands on deck (Wednesday). It was a little bit of a grind. Those guys were putting at-bats on Ross, so at that point in the fourth inning, we needed to go to the pen.”

Surprisingly, Thursday will be just the second start for Kershaw at Turner Field, but he fared well in that 2011 outing, going seven innings while giving up two earned runs, leaving with a no-decision. In his career against the Braves, Kershaw is 2-0 with a 1.79 ERA in six starts (45 1/3 innings).

All signs point to an ideal scenario Thursday, which was set up by the six relievers who held the Braves scoreless for 6 1/3 innings Wednesday. Adam Liberatore started the relay race by getting Stripling out of a fourth-inning jam when he struck out Freddie Freeman.

Both J.P Howell and Chris Hatcher, each of whom have run into some early-season troubles, went more than an inning. Yimi Garcia, Joe Blanton and Kenley Jansen finished off the final three innings, with Jansen recording his sixth save in six attempts with a perfect 10th.

Dodgers relievers not only have given up just one hit in their 6 1/3 innings, they retired 19 of the last 21 batters they faced.

If there was one concern Wednesday among the relievers, it was that right-hander Pedro Baez was unavailable after what was labeled an “incident” in the bullpen by Roberts. Baez was hit in the back of the head by a Liberatore throw and was set to undergo concussion tests.

So it is likely that one of the two fresh arms in the bullpen will not be available to back up Kershaw on Thursday. Louis Coleman was the only other Dodgers reliever who didn’t take the mound Wednesday.

The unexpected always could happen Thursday, but the positive showing by the bullpen Wednesday had everybody feeling good. Chase Utley, who led off the 10th with a single, stole a base and scored the go-ahead run from second on a blooper to center field by Justin Turner, had nothing but praise for the relievers.

“They gave us a great chance to kind of sneak back in the game,” Utley said. “We were down early, but we had the big home run by [Adrian Gonzalez] and then it was a battle from then on out, but a lot of the credit needs to go to the bullpen.”

Before the series even started in Atlanta, Jansen was praising the Dodgers bullpen, saying it was “legit” and that “they’re going to do the job.” A day later, his confidence proved clairvoyant.

“I think it’s awesome, man,” Jansen said. “Like I said, everybody is going to go through (struggles) and what we did today, especially after Ross Stripling had to exit early, we picked that game up. And it was a good job by the offense. We kept the game tight and I think that was a fantastic positive for the team.”

In the 13-hour window between the last out Wednesday and the first pitch Thursday, Jansen will have passed that figurative baton to Kershaw to take over.

“It just lined up that way,” said Roberts, who added that the Dodgers never thought of using Monday’s off day to help move Kershaw into the Colorado series as a way to protect the bullpen there. “That’s a good thing for us for sure. Let’s hope it plays out that way.”

In a sign of how Kershaw’s presence looms even when he is not starting, Roberts admitted he was comfortable removing Stripling after 76 pitches and barely out of the third inning because his ace was on deck for the series finale.

“I think that obviously with Clayton’s track record, it’s a luxury," Roberts said. “For us, we were able to be all hands on deck with the pen.”

So if Kershaw beats the Braves on Thursday, it’s almost as if he deserves two victories. The least they could give him is 1½.