Sunday’s 5–4 win over Atlanta was a Pyrrhic victory for the Los Angeles Dodgers, as Clayton Kershaw left his start after just 21 pitches with lower back tightness and is now bound for the disabled list. After a worrying home run binge in June, Kershaw’s been better than ever, allowing just two earned runs in 38 innings over his past six starts, a span in which he struck out 53 batters and walked just seven. At the moment, he’s leading the National League in innings, wins, and ERA+, which, given the season Max Scherzer is having, is saying something.
The timing of the injury is a bit of a good news/bad news proposition for the Dodgers. Brandon McCarthy could also be headed to the DL with a blister issue, and Julio Urías (shoulder) has been there for a month and might not return until 2019. Those losses have whittled down the Dodgers’ rotation depth. On the other hand, Hyun-Jin Ryu is set to return from a foot injury; Alex Wood is pitching just as well as Kershaw, though in fewer innings; and the Dodgers are 10.5 games up on the second-place Rockies, which means they could replace Kershaw with Jered Weaver and still make the playoffs without breaking a sweat.
The Dodgers are also fortunate that, even in a worst-case scenario, they still have a week before the non-waiver trade deadline to acquire a replacement, insofar as you can replace Kershaw. (Logan Forsythe has a week to figure out how much he wants to demand from Yu Darvish in exchange for his no. 11 jersey.) But much like Carlos Correa’s busted thumb ligament, the regular season isn’t the issue. With such a big in-division lead and the best record in baseball, the Dodgers are already focused on the postseason.
After running like a Toyota pickup truck for the first eight years of his career, Kershaw missed 12 starts with a back injury in 2016. Last year, Kershaw went on the DL in late June and had the whole month of September to pitch his way back into form. If this injury keeps him out for a similar period of time, Kershaw will return only for the playoffs. That creates a much tighter margin, and any doubts about his physical condition would throw into chaos the traditional postseason usage plan of pitching Kershaw on short rest and sometimes in relief on his throw day.
At this moment, we don’t know how severe this injury is, and neither do the Dodgers, who plan to spend Monday putting Kershaw through a series of diagnostics to figure out how long they’ll be without him. It could theoretically be as little as 10 days, or it could be the remainder of the season, and until we know which, that prospect ought to terrify anyone with an interest in seeing the Dodgers make a deep run into October.