Players coming off injuries are supposed to be diminished in some way, not enhanced, but this is just like Clayton Kershaw. When he takes his usual spot on Friday as the Dodgers' starting pitcher in Game 1 of the National League Division Series in Washington (5:30 p.m. ET, FS1), you'll need to look closely to see the negative effects of a herniated disk that sidelined him for 2 1/2 months.
Kershaw went seven innings in his final tuneup on Saturday, but he said he could have gone eight or nine. He allowed a solo homer and two other runs, one unearned, with no run support in a 3-0 loss in San Francisco. Since his return Sept. 9, he's 1-2 with a 0.96 ERA, 27 strikeouts and two walks in five starts, enough to get his pitch count up to 91. Before discomfort during a June 26 loss in Pittsburgh put him on the disabled list, he had been pitching even better than his 2014 MVP season (maybe better than anyone's season) -- 11-1 with a 1.57 ERA, 145 strikeouts and only nine walks.
Kershaw has dominated the Nationals the way he has all of baseball. He is 10-2 with a 2.02 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in 13 career starts and one relief outing vs. Washington. Kershaw's only start against Washington this year was a 4-1 win at home -- one run in seven innings, eight strikeouts and no walks. He's neutralized Nationals slugger Bryce Harper, who is 1-for-15 with a homer and 10 strikeouts against him.
If lingering pain is the reason why Kershaw has adjusted his between-starts routine, it didn't show on Saturday in fastball velocity or slider bite. He's still not happy with his curveball, which umpires rarely call strikes, but he's getting swings and misses with it again.
You'll see he doesn't sprint to first base when he hits ground balls, but he's no longer hesitant fielding his position. And then there's that new trick in the bag -- dropping down and firing sidearm, the way he did through his junior year of high school in Texas.
"He's probably come back as good or better than we expected," said Rick Honeycutt, Kershaw's pitching coach throughout his Dodgers career. "I don't think any scout looking at the game would say he's doing anything much different, except throwing sidearm."
Kershaw said the unconventional delivery was conventional for him until his senior year in high school.
"That's the way I always threw until Skip Johnson changed my delivery before my senior season," Kershaw said of the current University of Oklahoma pitching coach, who was a junior college coach at the time Kershaw's agent, J.D. Smart, connected the two in hopes of taking the left-hander to another level. How did that work out?
"Skip changed me from low-three-quarters delivery to over the top," Kershaw said. "That helped me keep my weight back. That was actually the first real pitching lesson I ever had."
The sidearm delivery caught Honeycutt by surprise.
"He was messing around several side [sessions] ago, and we just thought he was impersonating Rich Hill and I asked him and he said that's the way he used to pitch, and I never knew that," said Honeycutt. "[Saturday], he got a couple big outs with it. The last pitch at home [against Colorado's Gerardo Parra], he hit 95 or 96 [mph] from down there. It is something a little different. He's not going to change his whole program, but there is the element of surprise. He actually has some run to the ball from that angle. He punched out Brandon Belt, and it stayed up but had a different tail. He threw one to Brandon Crawford that really ran in. It's a different movement they haven't seen."
Just what opposing hitters need, something else to worry about when Kershaw's on the mound.
"I feel every time out there there's a chance he can throw a no-hitter," said Honeycutt. "Seems so long ago, but that first half of the season, it was ridiculous. He's not happy with his curveball. He expects perfection from himself. It's to the extreme, but that's what separates him. The commitment to be all-in on every pitch is what I like about him. For me, just to have him back out there gives you that stability. You feel like the game's in order when he's out there. His approach and mentality and his overall demeanor is a big lift for us right now."
Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers since 1989, and for MLB.com since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.