playoffs 2016: Clayton Kershaw decision looms large for Dodgers in Game 4

Right around the time the Nationals pushed their slim one-run lead up to four comfortable runs in the top of the ninth inning Monday, baseball experts from all over the country took to Twitter to lend Dodgers manager Dave Roberts advice on which lefty he should start in Game 4. The dilemma: Give the ball to 20-year-old rookie Julio Urias, as was originally the plan, or start ace Clayton Kershaw on short rest. See, Roberts and his Dodgers lost on Monday night, 8-3, to the Nationals. That was their second consecutive loss, which isn’t a big deal in June but is a major problem in a best-of-five playoff series. This was Game 3 of the NLDS, and Roberts and his Dodgers are behind, 2-1. One more loss and their season is done, frustratingly early once again. This is the fourth year in a row they’ve made the playoffs — and eighth time in 13 years — but they’ve yet to reach the World Series in any of those October journeys.  MORE: Each team's most iconic postseason momentSo back to the Kershaw-Urias dilemma. The kid or the ace on short rest? After the game, Roberts wasn’t willing to tip his hand. Who is Game 4 starter?Dave Roberts: "We're in talks"— Eric Stephen (@truebluela) October 11, 2016Of course, that press conference was held mere minutes after the game ended, so it’s not like Roberts had a ton of time to weigh his options. In the clubhouse, Kershaw stayed mum.The Dodgers say they won't announce their starter until tomorrow. "You guys look angry," Kershaw jokes to a group of reporters.— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughTimes) October 11, 2016Let’s look at case for each.For Urias: The Dodgers originally planned to start Urias in Game 4, with good reason. The lefty ranked in the top three of pretty much every prospect list at the beginning of the season, and after a couple initial bumpy starts in the bigs, he’s been really good. Urias turned 20 on August 12; since then he’s pitched in seven games (five starts) and compiled a 1.26 ERA, with 31 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings. That’s shutdown stuff. For Kershaw: It’s not quite a Zack Britton-in-the-wild-card-game situation, but it’s close,

right? With the season on the line, don’t you have to give the ball to your best pitcher? He’s Clayton Freaking Kershaw (disclaimer: not his actual middle name). He’s the best pitcher in baseball. Isn’t that a no-brainer? Sure, the Dodgers have to win two more games to advance to the NLCS, but you can’t win Game 5 if there isn’t a Game 5.MORE: Fun facts and wacky stats from playoff historyFor Urias: There are questions about Kershaw, relatively speaking. He missed a ton of time this season with back issues, and those aren’t exactly the things that go away overnight. Sure, he’s been pretty excellent since coming back, but always on full rest and always under a watchful eye. He didn’t exactly dominate in his Game 1 start, either. Kershaw lasted just five innings, throwing 101 pitches, giving up eight hits and three runs in a game the Dodgers won, 4-3, thanks largely to an outstanding bullpen effort. What happens if, with the short rest, his back acts up in the second inning and he has to leave? It’s hard to imagine the Dodgers can survive another by-the-bullpen game, considering how taxed that group is right now. Four L.A. relievers threw four innings in Game 1, five relievers threw 4 2/3 innings in Game 2 and seven relievers threw seven innings in Game 3.For Kershaw: On the other hand, who knows what to expect from Urias? Sure, he’s incredibly talented and he pitched well down the stretch, but the Dodgers had a solid lead in the NL West at the time, so he hasn’t seen anything remotely like the pressure of a win-or-go-home game in the playoffs. Who knows how he’d react if the Nationals put up a couple early runs? The potential for a way-too-short outing is definitely there for a rookie stepping into a completely new situation. MORE: 12 players that own unfortunate postseason recordsFor Urias: The Nationals have already announced that ace Max Scherzer is going in Game 5, no matter what, which means they’ll start either Joe Ross or Reynaldo Lopez on Tuesday. So it’s not like L.A.’s Game 4 starter has to throw seven pristine innings. There seems, at least on paper, to be a little bit larger margin for error than if Scherzer, who has perfect-game-potential every start, was on the mound. There’s theoretically room for Urias to have a nerves-related hiccup or two and work himself into a rhythm. And if they survive, then Dodgers fans would feel pretty decent about their chances with Kershaw, fully rested and healthy, in a winner-take-all Game 5.For Kershaw: If anyone would understand how to pitch on short rest, it’s Kershaw. He started Game 1 and Game 4 in 2013, then did so again in 2014 and again in 2015. In those three Game 4 outings, he’s pitched 19 innings, struck out 23 and allowed just six runs (only four earned). The Dodgers won two of the three, losing just to the Cardinals in 2014 (the final score was 3-2). That's a darn good track record. The verdict: Unless he’s just not physically able — his long-term health clearly isn’t worth it if he’s not 100 percent confident in his back — give the ball to Kershaw.