Less than 48 hours before the Dodgers scratched Clayton Kershaw from his scheduled start in San Francisco because of a hip injury, the team's best pitcher sounded optimistic one minute. The next, he sounded realistic.
"Yeah, I feel great physically, 100 percent," Kershaw said. "I mean, obviously I'm probably not 100 percent, like anybody at this point, but you've got to trick yourself."
The final three weeks of this Dodgers season could well come down to how well this team, particularly Kershaw and Matt Kemp, can deceive itself. September is a tricky time for contending baseball teams. The games are at their most exciting, the finish line beckons, but the players' bodies are at their most defeated.
An accumulation of maximum-effort throws tends to stretch a pitcher's muscles and ligaments. Diving attempts in the field and slides on the bases bruise position players' bodies. Welts from being hit by baseballs -- either from the pitcher's hand or fouled off the bat -- can linger for weeks. Extra swings in the batting cage tend to tweak muscles and tendons.
After six months of relentless pounding -- including spring training -- just running out to the field can be a painful experience.
"We have a great life. We’re well taken care of, but it is a rough road," said veteran Adam Kennedy. "It’s a long season and your body does get beaten up."
While with the Seattle Mariners, Kennedy tore the plantar fascia in his foot shortly after the All-Star break last season. He kept it to himself and batted .190 after the All-Star break. Kemp was in a miserable hitting funk before he finally approached manager Don Mattingly and said it was time to get his shoulder looked at. It's a delicate balancing act for players. Are they helping the team or hurting the team by playing in pain?
"You feel a huge responsibility to the team first," Kennedy said, "and you don’t want to miss out on being part of something."
After 141 games, nobody in the Dodgers' clubhouse feels fresh. But the wild-card race could hinge on the health of Kemp and Kershaw. The Dodgers' chances are teetering after a rough series in San Francisco. They could come crashing down if neither Kemp nor Kershaw can go on Tuesday in Arizona.
Kemp has already missed more than one-third of those 141 games because of hamstring, knee and shoulder injuries. Saturday, doctors in San Francisco injected his left shoulder with two substances. One was a dye for a contrast MRI, which turned up no damage other than inflammation.
The other was cortisone, a powerful inflammation reducer that carries side effects, including the possibility it will weaken the nearby tendons. Kershaw also received a cortisone injection. Such shots are often a medical staff's last resort, which tells you the potential severity of both players' injuries.
Kemp, who injured himself slamming into an outfield wall two weeks ago, still feels severe pain in his left shoulder, particularly when he swings and misses at a changeup or curveball. It's doubtful that pain will completely disappear after a few days of rest.
"I wish this wasn't going on right now, but unfortunately, injuries are part of the game," Kemp said. "They've been part of my game all year."
Kershaw's situation also is far from cut and dry. If he gets through the first inning in Arizona on Tuesday, he will have surpassed 200 innings for the fourth straight season (including the 2009 playoffs). That's a hefty work load for a 24-year-old pitcher. The Dodgers' long-term plans rest heavily on Kershaw, who also has been dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot this season.
Kershaw said doctors probably will "take a look at it in the offseason," but he has no plans to stop pitching because of the often-severe pain in his foot. He also pushed hard to pitch Sunday's game in San Francisco, but manager Don Mattingly -- probably wisely -- held him out for two more days.
"It's not affecting me at all. It was at the time, but not anymore," Kershaw said. "I just don't worry about it."
This is the time of year when you have to take everything these guys say with a grain of salt and, perhaps, with an anti-inflammatory or two.