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Clayton Kershaw’s injury makes the Dodgers’ ‘rotation gymnastics’ all the more difficult

LOS ANGELES — The Dodgers already knew they’d be entering a perilous stretch of their schedule for their pitching staff to withstand. A stretch of 31 games in 30 days can be difficult for any group to absorb, even one that leads baseball in ERA.

Losing Clayton Kershaw, even for just a couple of starts, makes that all the more daunting.

The Dodgers placed Kershaw on the 15-day injured list Friday with what they described as inflammation in the right SI joint in his hip, hours before Kershaw’s scheduled start. The back flared up Thursday after the Dodgers’ flight home from Pittsburgh on Wednesday, with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts saying the area “locked up.”

Kershaw received an epidural injection Thursday and described the discomfort as similar to some he had experienced in the past. An MRI revealed no structural damage, Kershaw said, and he and Roberts expressed hope he would miss only the minimum 15 days for going on the IL.

“I don’t feel great right now,” Kershaw said. “The specifics aren’t important. It’s a little sore right now, but I’m confident that by the time my (IL) stint is over I should be close to ready to go — if not ready to go.”

The SI joint, located in the hip, can cause lower-back pain when inflamed, according to the Mayo Clinic. The joint is where the lower back and pelvis connect. Kershaw dealt with a right hip impingement in 2012 and has experienced back-related maladies that caused him to miss time in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020.

“I certainly think that there’s a common thread,” Roberts said.

“I wouldn’t say (I’m) worried. But I think that I have to, it has to be on my mind. And it is. I think that that’s the responsible way to look at things. … He and I are in lockstep as far as the ultimate goal is to make sure he’s healthy through October. I still expect that.”

Kershaw had not shown any signs of discomfort through his first five starts, be it from his SI joint or from the elbow that cost him a chance to pitch during the Dodgers’ playoff run in October. Kershaw had made notable progress this season, bouncing back well from the platelet-rich plasma (PRP) shot he received last fall and building up without a hitch after not picking up a baseball until January. That sense of health was paramount in Kershaw’s decision to return to Los Angeles this winter, when he hit free agency for the first time.

His decision to sign a one-year, $17 million deal centered on being ready for October, with Kershaw saying in March, “I’d rather not play than get paid and be hurt.”

“I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t think that I was healthy,” he said. “I wouldn’t come back if I didn’t think I could pitch a full season and be ready to go.”

His elbow has responded brilliantly. Kershaw not only started his season as scheduled without setbacks after an abbreviated buildup, he twirled seven perfect innings in his season debut. Through five starts and 30 innings, his ERA sat at 1.80, with Kershaw flashing in brilliant form.

Now the Dodgers will have to pivot – and quickly. The upcoming pitching workload is piling up, with a doubleheader Tuesday against Arizona and the Dodgers already having done some shuffling to attack that before Kershaw’s injury.

Walker Buehler moved up to pitch in Friday night’s contest against the Phillies. Tony Gonsolin, originally scheduled to start Monday, is a candidate to be pushed up to start Sunday after Julio Urías was pushed up to Saturday’s start. But Roberts said internal 40-man candidates Andre Jackson and Michael Grove could also start this weekend.

Grove, the Dodgers’ second-round selection in the 2018 draft, is the most likely candidate to pitch in Sunday’s series finale in what would be his major-league debut.

The Dodgers selected the 25-year-old right-hander after he’d undergone Tommy John surgery in March 2017, and his subsequent pandemic-altered development path has limited him to all of 139 professional innings. He’s impressed of late for Double-A Tulsa with a 2.76 ERA and 22 strikeouts in his five starts (16 1/3 innings).

From there, they still have stuff to sort out. Ryan Pepiot is lining up to likely make his second big-league start in one of the games of Tuesday’s doubleheader. But everyone else in their rotation would have to line up on four days’ rest — something the Dodgers have done less than any team in baseball since Roberts was hired in 2016. For a group already hoping to pop in a sixth starter every once in a while during this stretch, a bullpen that has been taxed of late and a limit on total pitchers that drops from 14 to 13 on May 29, that’s going to be a squeeze.

“That takes a lot more rotation gymnastics now,” Roberts said.

(Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo / Getty Images)

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