Clayton Kershaw recorded 13 outs, allowed only one run and left his Monday start against the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks to a rousing ovation, a fitting end to an encouraging return for the Los Angeles Dodgers' iconic left-hander.
"There's not a lot of better feelings in the world than getting to pitch here and getting a win," Kershaw said after a 5-1 victory, his team's 92nd this season and fourth in a row. "It's a special thing. I missed it."
Kershaw, pitching for the first time since getting shut down with elbow inflammation more than two months ago, recorded five strikeouts and allowed five baserunners in 4⅓ innings. His fastball averaged a tick below 90 mph and his slider wasn't quite as sharp as he wanted it, but he threw his curveball effectively, generating a called strike or a whiff on 42% of those pitches.
Kershaw, 33, and winding down the final season of his contract, is lined up for at least three more starts this regular season -- his next one is Sunday, on the road against the Cincinnati Reds -- and should be stretched out as a traditional starting pitcher by October. Shortly thereafter, he'll form a devastating postseason rotation alongside Max Scherzer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias (assuming the Dodgers, 2½ games behind the San Francisco Giants, can somehow advance into the National League Division Series).
"I'm thankful," Kershaw said. "I didn't really know what it was gonna look like, honestly, at the end of this season. For me to be able to be a part of it is huge. I will never take that for granted ever, to be in a playoff race, to be a part of it. And it's a good one right now. The Giants aren't losing, so they aren't making it easy on us. It's gonna be fun."
Kershaw, six days removed from his lone rehab start in the minor leagues, allowed his only run on two hits and a walk in the first inning. He retired 10 of 12 batters thereafter and exited after throwing his 50th pitch in the top of the fifth -- with his childhood friend, new Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, watching from behind home plate.
Not long ago, Kershaw didn't know when he would return or how stretched out he could be. He admittedly tried to ramp back up too quickly after being placed on the injured list July 7, suffering a setback during a simulated game from San Francisco 20 days later.
From there, the rehab process moved methodically. The typical frustration of not being able to pitch was amplified by the opportunity within the roster and the urgency within the standings. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts admitted that Kershaw was "miserable" throughout -- right up until the time he finally made his way back.
"It was so good to see him back out there, taking the ball," Justin Turner, Kershaw's longtime teammate, said. "We talked before the game, how hard it is for him to not be able to go out there and compete every fifth day. We're all just excited to see him back out there. He's our guy."