Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw returns from a lengthy stint on the disabled list Friday night in Miami. Given that he's won three of the last five Cy Youngs while finishing second and third, respectively, the times he didn't win, it's pretty obvious he's the best pitcher on the face of the Earth.
So, yeah, this is a big deal. Let's dive in and check out some key points.
1. It's a juicy pitching matchup
Kershaw and the Dodgers take on the Marlins and their 24-year-old superstar, Jose Fernandez. The young Marlins righty is 13-8 with a 3.03 ERA this season. He's already struck out 224 hitters in 160 1/3 innings. So while he's been hit at times, his ability to make opposing players swing and miss makes him a threat to throw a gem on any given night. We already know Kershaw is capable of making the opposition look silly, too, so an awesome, old-school pitchers' duel just may be in the cards.
2. Kershaw could still win the 2016 Cy Young
He checked in at fourth in our latest Cy Young Power Rankings, despite having only thrown 121 innings so far this season. How? Well, good lord, look at his numbers:
11-2, 1.79 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 145 K, 9 BB, 16.11 K/BB
Those are laughably good. He still leads the NL with three shutouts (Johnny Cueto has two; no one else has more than one). Basically, on a per-game or per-inning basis, he's crushing every other starter.
Kershaw's chances here boil down to him making up as much of the innings gap as possible the rest of the way while maintaining his ridiculous rate stats from above. If he's that much better than everyone else, it can help close the innings gap.
I'd still maintain it's at best an outside chance -- we'll get to his workload in a bit, but he won't be able to just throw nine innings out of the gate -- and it would take some major faltering from the likes of Scherzer, Bumgarner and Hendricks.
3. The Dodgers were heavily reliant on Kershaw before his injury
Kershaw's last start before the injury came on June 26. It was actually a loss, dropping the Dodgers all the way down to (gasp!) 14-2 in his starts this season. At the time, they were 27-34 when he didn't start.
That's an .875 winning percentage with him and a .443 without him. Even though he pitched just once every five days, it was accurate to say he was almost single-handedly keeping them relevant.
4. But things have changed
After that Sunday loss with Kershaw on the hill, the Dodgers sat 41-36 and trailed the Giants by eight games in the NL West. Kershaw now returns with the Dodgers leading the the division by five games. Check out the Fangraphs chart of the odds to win the NL West.
That low point where the blue line dips below the 25 percent threshold? Yes, that's June 26 at 24.1 percent. Kershaw's last outing. Now? It's 94.2 percent.
Obviously the Dodgers were helped along by the Giants' dreadful second half. That's part of the reason they've been 13 games better in less than 2 1/2 months, but look at the best records in the majors since then:
Good company to keep, no? They did that without the best pitcher in the world, aka the guy who they are 14-2 playing behind this season.
You think this team might be dangerous come October?
5. Kershaw will be at full strength by the playoffs
He threw only 34 pitches in his one rehab start and the general rule of thumb is an increase of 15 pitches per outing when a pitcher is working back to full strength. You can round to a multiple of five, too. So let's just go with a rough outline.
Sept. 9: 50 pitches
Sept. 14: 65 pitches
Sept. 19: 80 pitches
Sept. 24: 95 pitches
If Kershaw is needed during the final series of the season -- it's against the Giants -- he lines up for the last day of the regular season and he'd be ready to be full go.
Obviously, this is all assuming no setbacks. The point is that, yes, he has plenty of time to work back into full-bore Kershaw before the postseason.
Please allow me to reiterate this is totally a rough outline used only to prove a point that there's time to work all the way back slowly. There will be flexibility along the way and game situations can dictate straying from the path -- not to mention how Kershaw feels. He's a human being and this isn't a video game.
6. His "playoff struggles" are overblown
His overall postseason line is bad: 2-6, 4.59 ERA.
He's been plenty good on several occasions, though.
In the 2013 NLDS against the Braves, they won the series 3-1 behind two Kershaw starts. He had a 0.69 ERA with 18 strikeouts against four walks in 13 innings in those two starts. The second one was on short rest, too.
The Dodgers then lost Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cardinals behind Kershaw, but he didn't even allow an earned run in a 1-0 loss.
He was shelled in his next two playoff starts and that has carried the entire "he can't pitch in the playoffs" narrative. Both came against the Cardinals (Game 6 of the 2013 NLCS and Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS) and he allowed 15 earned runs on 18 hits in 10 2/3 innings. The Cardinals hit .360/.385/.560 in those two games.
His next time out, he threw six scoreless innings before two singles and a three-run shot buried him. Well, that an lack of run support. Plenty of pitchers have won playoff games while allowing three runs.
Not Kershaw in Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS, though. He took a 3-1 loss, despite striking out 11 and only allowing four hits.
By now, the "Kershaw can't pitch in the playoffs" narrative was as strong as ever. The Dodgers had lost five straight starts of his. Though he was only actually bad in two of them, he just wasn't the same dominant force as the regular season (well, except for in that aforementioned 1-0 loss).
Then Game 4 of the NLDS last season happened, with the Dodgers' backs against the wall. Kershaw picked up the win after seven innings of work. He allowed only one run -- a Daniel Murphy home run in the midst of his mind-bogglingly historic streak -- on three hits with eight strikeouts.
Now, let's be real with what the "can't pitch in the postseason" talk actually means. People are questioning a pitcher's mental ability to translate his talent into the postseason when "it matters most." If he's way worse in the postseason, he must be mentally weak when the bright lights hit, so the thinking goes.
If Kershaw lacked this kind of mental fortitude, how did he pitch his team to the win Game 4 last year? Or what about those 2013 outings?
He still only has 10 postseason starts, too. We shouldn't be judging any pitcher based solely upon 10 starts, and we certainly shouldn't be insinuating that Kershaw is going to cower in the corner of the dugout at the thought of the postseason when he's been dominant several times.
Hell, if we take away those two clunkers against the Cardinals, his postseason ERA is 3.00. Does that suck? Of course not.
So Kershaw hasn't been Madison Bumgarner in the playoffs? So what? Who has? That's like saying Bumgarner sucks in the regular season because he hasn't been nearly as good as Kershaw.
Heading into the 2016 playoffs, no pitcher has as much likelihood to dominate as a healthy Kershaw.
7. The Dodgers' playoff rotation could be very strong
Though it's not a definite. It's littered with question marks.
We know all about Kershaw, but there's the question mark of his health.
How about Rich Hill? He hadn't started in the majors since 2009 until late last season. Since he first took the ball to start for Boston, he's made 20 starts. In that time, he's 13-4 with a 1.85 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 137 strikeouts against 35 walks in 117 innings. How very Kershaw-ian of the lefty.
But Hill is 36 and took a while to shake a blister issue earlier this year.
How about the phenom Julio Urias? He's only 20, but since rejoining the rotation on Aug. 8, he's 4-0 with a 1.44 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 25 innings.
The complication with Urias is that the Dodgers have been overly careful with his workload and are operating under a team-imposed limit to his workload. As present, he hasn't started since Sept. 2 and isn't scheduled again for the time being. On Aug. 30, latimes.com reported Urias was "unlikely" to start in October.
So we move onto Kenta Maeda. He actually shouldn't be a question mark. He's having a good season, has only thrown 153 innings and worked 206 1/3 in Japan last season. He's fine.
If no Urias -- or if Kershaw or Hill go down -- the Dodgers need more for the playoffs. Among those not currently injured, there are Ross Stripling (4-6, 4.12), Bud Norris (3-3, 6.10 since coming over in a trade), Brock Stewart (1-2, 6.55) or Jose De Leon.
On the latter, he's intriguing. The 24-year-old prospect was excellent in Triple-A and showed some nice flashes of upside in his MLB debut this past Sunday. He struck out nine without walking anyone, though he did give up three earned runs in six innings to the Padres.
There's great potential there, but he only has made one MLB start.
The upside of a Kershaw-Hill-Maeda top three with Urias/De Leon splitting time as the fourth starter in the playoffs is a World Series championship. There's also potential to end up with something like Maeda-Strilping-Stewart trio in the NLDS if disaster hits and that feels like a first-round exit.
There are questions, but the Dodgers have been answering most of those in the positive since Kershaw last pitched for them. Friday night, he returns to one of the best teams in baseball -- quite a far cry from how he left them.