Just hours before Clayton Kershaw was scheduled to take the mound in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Dodgers announced the left-hander won’t make his start because of back spasms and rookie Tony Gonsolin will take his place.
What does the injury mean for Kershaw, the Dodgers and the rest of the 2020 MLB playoffs? When could we see L.A.’s ace on the mound again? And who is Gonsolin, and what should fans expect from Kershaw’s Game 2 replacement? We asked ESPN MLB experts Alden Gonzalez, Bradford Doolittle and David Schoenfield to weigh in.
What does this mean for the Dodgers in Game 2?
Alden Gonzalez: It means Gonsolin will start, and that’s a very good option for a team left scrambling. Gonsolin was among the best rookies in a crowded field for the National League Rookie of the Year Award, posting a 2.31 ERA with 46 strikeouts and only seven walks in 46⅔ innings. Gonsolin completed at least six innings in four of his eight starts, and the Dodgers will need something similar in Game 2, the second of as many as seven games in seven days. They need to keep their high-leverage relievers as fresh as possible, especially if Kenley Jansen no longer resides in that group.
David Schoenfield: I wouldn’t expect him to go especially deep tonight when he hasn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 26, especially with the Dodgers carrying 15 pitchers. Despite the performance in the ninth inning on Monday, the Dodgers do have a good and deep bullpen. Brusdar Graterol and Victor Gonzalez got out of two big jams in Game 1 and will likely have to play a huge role in Game 2. Then Dave Roberts just has to figure out who pitches the ninth inning.
Bradford Doolittle: You have to worry about the domino effect with the L.A. bullpen after the troubles of Game 1. Can Roberts afford to continue to mix in Julio Urias and Dustin May as super-relievers? If he doesn’t, does that mean he has to dip into a layer of his bullpen he’d prefer to avoid in medium- to high-leverage spots? The Dodgers covered themselves for this to some extent by carrying 15 pitchers on their NLCS roster, though the decision to do that was likely more driven by worries over Walker Buehler‘s blisters than Kershaw’s back. Still, having so many pitchers doesn’t help in the postseason if you aren’t comfortable deploying them in tight, tense games, which is about all we get this time of the year.
What does this mean for the Dodgers the rest of this postseason?
Gonzalez: The Dodgers sound optimistic that Kershaw will make a start later in this series. Ideally, it would set up this way: Julio Urias starts Game 3, Kershaw is ready to pitch in Game 4 and May goes in Game 5. That would set Walker Buehler up to start again on normal rest if there is a Game 6 (the Dodgers might be hesitant about using Buehler on short rest because of the blister issues he has dealt with for about a month). But those plans aren’t firm by any stretch. Of utmost important now is that Gonsolin, Urias and May — all young and relatively inexperienced — pitch deep into games if/when they are deployed as starters. Roberts doesn’t have as much freedom to use Urias and May out of the bullpen as he used to, but he hasn’t ruled out that possibility.
Doolittle: In addition to the points above, the double-whammy aspect of the timing of this is that it removes the possibility of Kershaw going in a potential Game 7 on normal rest. If the spasms were to clear up quickly and Kershaw was able to start in Game 3, which the Dodgers have ruled out, then it would have been theoretically possible he could go in Game 7 on short rest. That is less than ideal for him at this point in his career. The last time we saw the Dodgers try it with Kershaw was when he went in Game 1 of the 2018 World Series against the Red Sox, three days after throwing two innings of relief in the NLCS clincher over Milwaukee. Boston shelled him.
Schoenfield: Yeah, the unknown here is what the Dodgers’ plans were with May entering the series. Remember, Roberts used him as an opener in the Padres series, having him throw just one inning, with Urias coming in as the bulk guy. But that was a shorter series. Was May to be a permanent part of the pen in this series? Was he going to pitch in Game 1 and then be the Game 5 starter? The unknown over Kershaw’s health clouds the plans for May and might force him back into the rotation. And Wood seems like the last guy you would trust right now — over his past five appearances in the regular season he allowed eight runs and 12 hits in 6⅓ innings.