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No time like present for Kershaw's return

WASHINGTON D.C. – It was getting on near 2 a.m. Tuesday when someone asked Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly whether his team, which had just played its seventh game in three cities over six days, would need to figure out a way to get a little pitching help for its beleaguered bullpen.

“Yeah, we’re going to bring back Clayton,” Mattingly said. “Unless they've got somebody better.”

They don't, of course. There isn’t anyone better than Clayton Kershaw, as Mattingly well knows. And, yeah, this is a pretty good time for a team to add the best starting pitcher in baseball to its increasingly tattered pitching mix.

So, while Mattingly and the rest of the team try to diminish expectations for Kershaw’s return on one hand – he joked he wouldn't let Kershaw throw any more than 130 pitches his first time out since March 22 – nobody is hiding the fact that they'll be happy to see Kershaw standing on the Nationals Park mound Tuesday evening, preferably without any raindrops falling on his head.

The Dodgers are in the midst of a hellacious road trip, one in which they were rained out once, rain delayed once (for more than three hours), arrived at the team hotel after daybreak once and needed their bullpen to chew up 28 ⅔ innings in seven games.

But that’s only the foreground. The bigger picture is that, while they've managed to keep their heads bobbing above water for the past six weeks without Kershaw, there has been something missing all the while. They've missed Kershaw’s quality innings more than anything, but they've also missed the security blanket he provides Mattingly and the relievers every fifth day and the example he sets every day of the week.

In those two minor league rehab outings he made, the Dodgers saw crisper stuff than they had seen through a ho-hum spring training and even in his strong start against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Australia the night he strained the teres major muscle near his left shoulder.

But as good as Kershaw’s stuff is, it’s never been the prevailing reason he’s made himself into the best (and highest-paid) pitcher in baseball.

Dodgers reliever J.P. Howell is five years older than Kershaw and has been pitching in the major leagues three years longer. He says he wishes he had come into the league with Kershaw’s willpower and work ethic. It took watching teammates such as David Price, James Shields, Zack Greinke and Kershaw for Howell to realize what sets the best pitchers apart.

“It took me eight different guys to see that,” Howell said.

“He’s in that moment. He doesn't let the last pitch or the future pitch he might have to make bug him,” Howell said. “He’s thinking about this pitch now, no matter what just happened or what could happen. You have to do it so many times and it gets tedious, man, but he does it.

“He’s got great stuff, but that’s not it. Guys have better stuff than him and they don’t do it. You can never prove to me that stuff is what matters. It does to a certain point to get you in the door, but when you’re here, there’s a lot more that goes into it.”

People shouldn't expect Kershaw to give the Dodgers eight or nine innings his first time out. He threw 86 pitches in his final rehab outing for Double-A Chattanooga and, under similar circumstances last May, Greinke returned from a broken collarbone and threw 83 pitches over 5 ⅓ innings. The Dodgers are still trying to build up Kershaw’s arm strength, and the last thing they want to do is overextend him early.

But what they're hoping is that, over the coming weeks, their rotation will start buzz-sawing its way through the schedule. Dan Haren and Josh Beckett have been better than just about anyone expected. Greinke has been as good as in his 2009 Cy Young year. It looks like Hyun-Jin Ryu's left shoulder is OK, and he could be back within two weeks.

Who knows, maybe a gluttonously paid offense will eventually find a consistent groove.

But the biggest missing piece will slide into place Tuesday night, and it could change the way the Dodgers feel about the entire puzzle.