Max Muncy comes up clutch as Dodgers win in Clayton Kershaw’s return

Los Angeles Dodgers' Max Muncy celebrates in the dugout with Mookie Betts (50) after hitting a home run.
Max Muncy celebrates in the dugout with Mookie Betts after hitting a solo home run in the seventh inning in the Dodgers’ 2-1 win over the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on Thursday night. (Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

Clayton Kershaw has a history of downplaying injuries — it’s simply not in his DNA to acknowledge a possible weakness — so the Dodgers left-hander was entirely in character when he minimized the severity of a “cranky” shoulder that forced him from a June 27 game at Colorado after throwing just 79 pitches over six one-hit, shutout innings.

“For right now, I don’t think it’s too serious,” Kershaw said on that steamy, 90-degree evening in high-altitude Coors Field. “I don’t think I’ll miss a start.”

Six frustration-filled weeks, countless games of catch, several bullpen sessions and two simulated games later, Kershaw finally returned to a big-league mound Thursday night and picked up right about where he left off, giving up one run and three hits, striking out four and walking none in five solid innings against the Rockies in Dodger Stadium.

Recently acquired left-hander Ryan Yarbrough replaced Kershaw and blanked the Rockies on one hit with four strikeouts for three innings, and the Dodgers rallied for a 2-1 victory on Max Muncy’s solo home run in the seventh inning and bases-loaded walk in the eighth.

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Brusdar Graterol retired the side in order in the ninth for his fifth save as the Dodgers (68-46) extended their winning streak to five and won for the ninth time in 10 games.

“It was great to be back — it’s no fun to sit on the sidelines,” said Kershaw, who is 10-4 with a 2.51 ERA in 17 starts. “You just want to be out there, you want to be a part of what’s going on here. … We’re playing great. We’re in first place. We’re doing a lot of things well. Obviously, October, you want to be part of that more than anything.”

Kershaw threw only 67 pitches, 45 for strikes, but both he and manager Dave Roberts thought the five-inning effort was a good first step after Kershaw threw simulated games of three and four innings in the last week and a half. The goal next time will be to pitch at least six innings.

“I’m not gonna lie, I was holding my breath a little bit through the entire outing, but it was fantastic,” Roberts said. “There was a little bit of searching for the slider, in my opinion, but he wasn’t stressed all night. I thought he stayed in his delivery. His rhythm was good. And his curveball and fastball were good.”

Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivers during the first inning at Dodger Stadium.

Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw delivers during the first inning of a 2-1 win over the Colorado Rockies on Thursday night at Dodger Stadium. (Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

Muncy said he felt a different kind of energy in the clubhouse in the hours leading up to the game and in the dugout in the minutes before first pitch. The reason? No. 22, the team’s three-time National League Cy Young Award winner, was back.

“When it’s start day for him, it’s a special day,” Muncy said. “Everyone gets excited to go out there and play behind him.”

It’s also a lot easier for Roberts to have Kershaw on the mound than next to him in the dugout.

“He just expects so much from himself that when he’s not available, it really bothers him,” Roberts said. “He’s not the most enjoyable guy to be around when he’s not healthy. So now that he’s active, I think we all feel better.”

The Dodgers, who rank second in baseball in runs and homers and averaged 7.3 runs in their previous nine games, gave Kershaw little support, but they eked out the win with a long ball and some little ball.

The score was tied 1-1 when pinch-hitter David Peralta, who won Wednesday night’s game in Arizona with a clutch two-out, two-run single in the eighth inning, led off the bottom of the eighth with a walk off reliever Tommy Doyle.

Peralta was erased on Jason Heyward’s fielder’s-choice grounder, but Mookie Betts lined a hit-and-run single to right-center field to advance Heyward to third. Colorado manager Bud Black replaced Doyle with right-hander Daniel Bard, who walked Freddie Freeman to load the bases with one out.

Will Smith followed with a pinch-hit flare to left-center field, but Rockies shortstop Ezequiel Tovar raced back and made a super over-the-shoulder catch for the second out. Muncy then took a 3-and-1 sinker down and in for ball four, forcing Heyward home with a run that gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead.

“There are so many different ways to win a game, and that last inning for us proved it,” Muncy said. “We had a bunch of guys just taking good at-bats and trying to string some things together and not let the moment get too big.”

Rockies left-hander Ty Blach, a sinker specialist with a funky, rapid-fire delivery, blanked the Dodgers on two hits through six innings before leaving a full-count slider up and in to Muncy, who hit a towering homer to right field — his 28th of the season — to lead off the bottom of the seventh, tying the score 1-1.

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“I was trying to get underneath it,” Muncy said. “His sinker was working well tonight, he was locating it, and I just kept beating it into the ground to the right side. So I was trying to just get underneath it and try to make something happen.”

Muncy said he doesn’t consider himself to be an all-or-nothing hitter, but his stat line tells a different story — he has more homers (28) than singles (26) this season.

“Yeah, it’s weird,” Muncy said. “Obviously, I’ll never complain about the homers, but I’m not real proud of that one.”

Kershaw blanked a Rockies lineup that was hollowed out by the trade-deadline departures of C.J. Cron and Randal Grichuk on two hits through four innings, striking out Michael Toglia looking at a 74-mph curve and Elehuris Montero looking at a rare 85-mph changeup to end the second and retiring the side in order in the fourth.

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He needed just four pitches to retire Trejo and Toglia on ground balls for the first two outs of the fifth but left an 85-mph slider up and over the outer half of the plate to Montero, who drove it 396 feet into the left-center field pavilion for his fourth homer of the season and a 1-0 Colorado lead.

“It’s good to be at Dodger Stadium again — I don’t take for granted those opportunities,” Kershaw, 35, said. “To get through five [innings] is good, and hopefully the leash keeps getting lengthened as I go and I get back to a normal pitch count here soon.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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