Kershaw aims for sound health, more success

Lefty had a 1.69 ERA despite missing 2 1/2 months with bad back

Kershaw aims for sound health, more success

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Dodgers squad each day this week. Today's topic: How's your star?

LOS ANGELES -- Corey Seager, with a rookie season for the ages, had the best 2016 for the Dodgers, but the face of the franchise is still Clayton Kershaw.

So even though the Dodgers were able to patch together 2 1/2 months without their ace and still nearly reach the World Series, all eyes at Spring Training will be on Kershaw for signs that a herniated disk really is healed.

Back injuries are tricky and often get worse instead of better, but Kershaw's September return to the rotation and memorable save in the Game 5 clincher of the National League Division Series were reinforced in December when the lefty insisted he's 100 percent.

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"I had an injury and it's not injured anymore, so now you keep going," said Kershaw.

Kershaw, who turns 29 next month, became a father for the second time during the offseason, he and wife Ellen welcoming son Charley. He said his ongoing conditioning program would be dictated by the inevitable effects of Father Time, not by the back injury.

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"I'm not having to subtract very much," he said. "It's different and just adding more stuff just to keep healthy. I think every player, as you get older, has to do that. Regardless of the back or not, that's what I'd be doing."

Before the injury, Kershaw was on pace for perhaps the best season of his career, which is saying something for a former MVP and three-time Cy Young winner. Through 15 starts, he was 11-1 with a 1.57 ERA, 141 strikeouts and seven walks -- no, that's not a typo -- in 122 innings. He fired three shutouts, all in May, when he was the NL Pitcher of the Month.

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Quietly, though, Kershaw was being treated for back discomfort that finally became intolerable in a loss to Pittsburgh June 26, his last start until Sept. 9. During his absence, the Dodgers went 38-24 and turned an eight-game deficit into a five-game lead.

Kershaw worked off the rust in five September starts (1.29 ERA). Despite the dramatic save against the Nationals, Kershaw's postseason was typically spotty, with a 2-1 record and 4.44 ERA. He was fifth in voting for the NL Cy Young Award, his worst finish since 2010, for a 12-4 regular-season record, 1.63 ERA and microscopic 0.725 WHIP.

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With a healthy Kershaw, the Dodgers rotation is overloaded. Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda and Julio Urias will follow, although the 20-year-old Urias might be iced in extended spring training to save innings for September and October. Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Alex Wood and Hyun-Jin Ryu -- all injured last year -- along with Brock Stewart and Ross Stripling are fifth-starter candidates.

But Kershaw is the man.

He showed in 2012 after battling through hip tightness that he can adjust his body when issues arise and, as he says, "keep going." Betting against him, even with a back injury, is probably a fool's errand. He really is different than the rest.

And don't forget, he has an opt-out in his contract after the 2018 season, so the Dodgers are on the clock. They could be down to their last two years to win a World Series with Kershaw atop the rotation.

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.