Clayton Kershaw is heading toward a return next season, but the question is where

Clayton Kershaw is heading toward a return next season, but the question is where

Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw walks back to the mound after striking out a batter against the Diamondbacks

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw walks back to the mound after striking out a batter against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday at Dodger Stadium. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

He would rather retire than be broke again.

Except he believes he won’t.

He would rather walk away than be reduced in the medium term.

Except he believes that won’t happen either.

So when Clayton Kershaw pictures what he’ll be doing next year, he imagines himself tumbling.

“So far, I haven’t thought much about next year,” he said. “But I think I’m leaning towards overplaying, definitely.”

The tentative plan is not specific at this point, with Kershaw saying he did not yet know whether he would return to the Dodgers for 16 years or move to pitch elsewhere. He entertained an offer from the Texas Rangers before this season and could look again at the possibility of playing for his hometown team in the winter.

As the playoffs approach, the 34-year-old left-hander is confident he can manage the back problems he returned from earlier this month. The same is true of the elbow troubles that kept him out of the postseason last year.

And as long as he stays healthy, the toughest competitor in football intends to compete again next year.

“I have the right to change my mind, but as of today, I think I have at least one more run,” he said.

His thoughts on extending his Hall of Fame career have been bolstered by how this year has unfolded, with Kershaw now pitching in his 11th postseason. His October preparations will continue Saturday when he starts against the St. Louis Cardinals in a game that will mark his first pitch four days after being activated from the injured list.

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw waves to Dodgers fans after the team's 4-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw waves to fans after the team clinched the NL West title with a 4-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on September 13 in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

“This was a great pleasure for me personally,” Kershaw said.

Last week, as the Dodgers secured their ninth division title in 10 years, manager Dave Roberts asked Kershaw to address his teammates before they produced bottles of uncorked sparkling wine.

“I think Clayton is a reflection of everything we’ve done, everything we’re doing,” Roberts said.

Kershaw has a win in a year that started with uncertainty. The three-time Cy Young Award winner admitted he didn’t know what to expect after the 2021 season in which he injured his elbow in July and hurt it in the final days of the regular season.

“I didn’t want to go out like that if I could,” Kershaw said.

He didn’t know he would have a choice, even though he was sure his elbow would heal without surgery. It didn’t feel right for most of the winter. He didn’t feel right in the first month of his off-season throwing program, which he started in January.

“I’m grateful for the lockout,” he said.

The lockout allowed Kershaw to delay a decision on whether to re-sign with the Dodgers or move to the Rangers, who play within driving distance of his offseason home in suburban Dallas. Shortly before the start of spring training in mid-March, Kershaw signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers.

“If I had been healthy and won the World Series, I don’t know what the last season would have been,” Kershaw said. “The same goes for this offseason, right? I don’t know yet.”

Retirement was not a consideration.

Looking to the future, he said he envisioned his primary motivation for retirement being health or performance.

“I don’t want to get hurt,” he said. “It’s just an awful feeling. You just feel useless. You feel that you are on the way. I don’t want to deal with that anymore. So if I felt like I was going to lose all the time, I don’t want to do that anymore.”

Dodgers' Joey Gallo, Craig Kimbrel, Max Muncy, Chris Taylor and Clayton Kershaw celebrate in the locker room

From left: Dodgers’ Joey Gallo, Craig Kimbrel, Max Muncy, Chris Taylor and Clayton Kershaw celebrate in the locker room after clinching the NL West on September 13 in Phoenix. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

The last time Kershaw had 30 or more starts in a season was seven years ago. As a result of his ongoing back problems he was placed on the injured list twice this season.

“At the end of the day, pitching is hard on my back,” he said. “There’s no way around that.”

However, he said, “I can manage it, sure, and maybe there’s a time when he can live for eight months of the year and be good. I think that’s still in there.”

Regarding performance, Kershaw said, “I don’t want to be mediocre either. I want to be good at what I do. I don’t want to work but park.”

He certainly isn’t hanging on this year, being good enough to be one of the two locks for the Dodgers’ postseason rotation, the other being Cy Young Award contender Julio Urías.

Kershaw is 9-3 with a 2.39 earned-run average in 19 starts, including 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA in four games since returning from the most recent injury list.

He started the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium.

The upside is that he has been forced to spend more time away from his growing family.

Although his wife Ellen and their four children spent the summer with him, they returned to Texas in August for the start of the school year. Seven-year-old Cali Ann is in second grade. Charley is five years old in kindergarten. Ellen and the kids took a few weekends to Los Angeles.

“Cali is playing soccer, playing basketball,” Kershaw said. “Charley is doing all kinds of fun things, getting into football a little bit. I don’t want to miss that stuff either.”

But the children are also a reason to continue playing after this season.

“I think the best part about it, too, is that they’re getting older where they’re starting to understand what this is a little bit, especially Charley, going into the clubhouse and stuff,” Kershaw said. “There’s a part of me that wants them to know what I’ve done, not just, ‘Hey, he had a job at some point.'”

And if he can extend his career for a few more years, maybe his kids will understand that he did more than simply play baseball, he won, he dominated, and he contributed to the culture of a baseball franchise to establish.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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