Kershaw pain-free after 20-pitch bullpen session

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Clayton Kershaw stood on a mound and fired 20 fastballs in the direction of Russell Martin on Monday morning, a light workout that represented the ace left-hander's first bullpen session in nearly three weeks. Kershaw merely described it as "a good step forward," but longtime Los Angeles Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt went so far as to call it "excellent," expressing some of the hope that still rings throughout the organization.

"Kershaw with no pain is going to be a great Kershaw," Honeycutt said. "He's been feeling good and throwing the baseball, and it showed today -- just kind of a nice, smooth delivery; not overdoing it."

Kershaw, who hadn't thrown off a mound since Feb. 20, is recovering from shoulder inflammation that seemingly unnerved him and ultimately set him back. The latest session, Honeycutt estimated, was carried out at 80 percent intensity, basically split between the windup and the stretch. Kershaw expects to get off a mound again in a couple of days and will incorporate off-speed pitches "pretty soon," but there is still no telling when -- or if -- he will appear in an official spring training game.

Pitching on March 28, which would run Kershaw's streak of consecutive Opening Day starts to nine, has not been ruled out, even though it is obvious that he will not be fully stretched out by then.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said it's "a possibility" that Kershaw and Walker Buehler, the budding star who has been slow-played as a precautionary measure, could make their first scheduled starts of the regular season even if they are built up to only four or so innings by then.

"But we still gotta be on the same page with the two guys and see if it makes sense for them," Roberts said. "They gotta believe in that, feel good about it, and we as well, from a roster standpoint."

The Dodgers need Kershaw to make steady progress, but they will not rush him. Honeycutt has been by Kershaw's side for his entire big league career. He knows the competitor in him might fight to be ready for the start of the season, but Honeycutt also believes that Kershaw is seasoned enough to be prudent.

Asked whether Opening Day matters to him, Kershaw said, "Yes and no."

Yes, because he would like to keep his streak active. No, because he understands the importance of avoiding further setbacks.

Kershaw has spent each of the last three seasons on the injured list with a back-related ailment. He managed a 2.73 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP across 161 1/3 regular-season innings last year, but his fastball dropped to the low 90s and his slider began to take on the characteristics of a cutter, making the two pitches almost indistinguishable from each other. It led to the worst hit rate (7.8) and strikeout rate (8.6) since Kershaw's rookie year in 2008.

Kershaw, who will turn 31 in eight days, returned to the Dodgers on a three-year, $93 million extension, then went into the offseason hoping to add more life to his fastball and more depth to his slider.

It's still too early to know whether he can, but Honeycutt can see how.

"He's done it for a long time," Honeycutt said. "When his arm gets into the right position and he's throwing right, with the proper arm speed, all of his pitches are going to work how he wants them to work."

Kershaw was officially placed on the injured list with biceps tendinitis and lower-back discomfort in 2018, but Honeycutt alluded to shoulder soreness that might have caused Kershaw to compensate by slightly changing his arm slot, ultimately affecting the velocity and movement of his pitches.

"When you have small discomfort, especially in the shoulder, you end up finding the spot that you can throw, and that's what he did last year," Honeycutt said. "I think a lot is he pitched with what he had that day and competed, and competed very well, but at the same time, maybe was not in his best spot."

It's still early, but Honeycutt noticed a delivery that was "free and clean" on Monday. The hope is that Kershaw can repeat it, then incorporate his off-speed pitches effectively, then respond favorably to facing hitters again, then eventually navigate through his first injury-free season in four years.

Kershaw isn't getting ahead of himself.

"It was a good day," he said, "and I'll take that right now."