LOS ANGELES -- If Clayton Kershaw really is the most valuable player in the National League, this would be as good a time as any to prove it.
On Saturday, the Los Angeles Dodgers trailed 2-0 by the time they batted in the fourth inning. The next day, they trailed 2-0 by the time they came up in the first inning. The day after that, they trailed 3-0 before they came to the plate in the first. And, en route to Wednesday's 4-1 loss to the San Diego Padres, they trailed 3-0 in the second.
Anyone sense a pattern here? Generally speaking, falling behind by multiple runs early in games isn't a recipe for cruising into October.
"I'm not saying it's frustrating, but it's not a place you want to be, that's for sure," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said.
Seems like as good a time as any for the best pitcher in the National League to take the mound, does it not? It's not as if Kershaw can't afford to mess up when he pitches on Thursday -- a day earlier than originally planned, so Zack Greinke's aching right elbow gets a couple of more days of rest -- but it's not recommended. The Dodgers still lead their division by three games, but it's a shaky-looking three at the moment, with the starting rotation battered behind Kershaw and with the Giants suddenly on tap for two games at Wrigley Field on Thursday, albeit trailing 2-0 in one of them, Tuesday's suspended game.
Greinke is hurt, how badly we probably won't know until the season is over. The Dodgers have kept a tight lid on injury news all year and Greinke acknowledged his elbow probably isn't going to feel 100 percent sound the rest of this season. The good news is he says he's going to make Saturday's start. Hyun-Jin Ryu is hurt, out for at least another 10 days or so, at a minimum. Paul Maholm and Josh Beckett, most likely, are out with season-ending injuries.
Mattingly has been forced to go to his bullpen heavily for a week. So, yeah, this is one of those moments when a starting pitcher can look an awful lot like an MVP. Kershaw is the Dodgers' stopper, and right now the challenge isn't so much to stop a losing streak as to stop a relentless stream of bad news.
The Dodgers don't want to put pressure on him but, well, they kind of need him to be more or less perfect for a few weeks or so.
"You never know. He's human and there are times he's going to struggle, too, but he's always important to us, because it seems like he's a guy who's always there to pick us up," Mattingly said.
Roberto Hernandez (7-9) wasn't sharp Wednesday night in his third Dodgers start, his debut as a home pitcher at Dodger Stadium, but he wasn't the problem. Kevin Correia wasn't particularly sharp early Tuesday either, but he wasn't the problem either. Hernandez and Correia were brought in to bolster the Dodgers' pitching depth, not to be saviors. Ideally, Hernandez would be the fifth starter and Correia would be stockpiled as depth in the bullpen. Right now, they're Nos. 3 and 4 starters, maybe more depending how effective Greinke can be pitching in pain.
Facing the Padres has never been a gimme for Kershaw. He's 10-6 against them with a 2.38 ERA, which seems fantastic until you compare it to some of his numbers facing other teams (say, San Francisco, 1.40 ERA).
Though the Dodgers just informed the public Wednesday they had flip-flopped Kershaw and Greinke, Kershaw found out Tuesday. He had time to start going over hitters with catcher A.J. Ellis on Wednesday afternoon, as he normally does. The disruption to his routine was minimal and Mattingly said Kershaw was cheerful about getting to pitch on his normal four days' rest.
"He just likes to pitch," Mattingly said.
He'll have the spotlight on him Thursday and, if he has his way, deep into October. A lot of it depends on him. It's what MVPs do.