- Tim Kurkjian, MLB reporter
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For most pitchers, having gaudy career numbers, an Opening Day start, two postseason starts, a 95 mph fastball and a calcifying curveball, all at age 23, would be enough to keep them satisfied for another year. Not Clayton Kershaw. He said "it was time to try something else,'' so he added a slider and refined his changeup this year, a decision that speaks to who he is and where he's going, a decision that didn't surprise anyone.
"He's a rare breed,'' Los Angeles Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said after Kershaw threw a brilliant bullpen session Monday in Philadelphia. "He doesn't want to be good. He wants to be the best.''
He is well on his way. Kershaw is in his fourth major league season. He has 32 victories, a 3.15 ERA and 593 strikeouts in 568 2/3 innings. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no 23-year-old pitcher has ever had that many victories, an ERA that low and averaged more than one strikeout per inning in his career since ERA became an official statistic after 1910. No pitcher.
"He competes like crazy, he competes beyond his years,'' said Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti. "He is able to be coached, retain the information, and put it to use. You don't see that in many young players. He is someone who seeks the biggest game of the year. He loves the 'must-win' situation. His ability to command his stuff has changed him into someone that you say, every time he goes out there now, 'This is something very special.'''
The Dodgers knew that when they brought Kershaw to the big leagues in 2008 at age 20. He was inserted into the rotation in May, did pretty well for a kid learning the league and the life of a major leaguer. But after being shelled for 10 hits and five runs in three innings at Colorado on July 22, the Dodgers told him that he had better improve or he might be heading back to the minor leagues. It wasn't a kick in the pants -- that is never necessary with Kershaw -- but he took it that way. His next five starts were tremendous, all quality starts, he regained his footing and proceeded to pitch like the future ace of the staff.
"The Dodgers did me a huge favor calling me up as early as they did,'' Kershaw said. "I took my lumps, but I'm better off for it. What I've learned to this point has been huge for me.''
The biggest adjustment came this year when he added a slider in part because, "I couldn't control my curveball.'' Manager Don Mattingly agreed, but added, "No one [umpires] calls the curveball [for strikes] anymore. No one swings at it. So, you can't throw it. But his slider and changeup have become very good. When I first saw him, he could throw a fastball for a strike on the inside part of the plate to right-handed hitters. Now he can throw the ball to both sides of the plate, against right-handed and left-handed hitters. His bullpens are now art. He throws five pitches in, five away. He moves the ball around. It's boom, boom, boom.''
What the Dodgers didn't teach him, what Kershaw has always had, is the big-game mentality.
"Clayton wants to go up against [Ubaldo] Jimenez, he wants [Tim] Lincecum,'' Mattingly said. "He wants the best.'' Kershaw says he has always been that way, no matter the opponent or the sport, saying, "It is so fun to compete. It is a blast to go play the best.''
Clayton wants to go up against [Ubaldo] Jimenez, he wants [Tim] Lincecum. He wants the best.
”-- Dodgers manager Don Mattingly
The Dodgers were somewhat cautious with Kershaw's development during his first two seasons, but now, Honeycutt said, "the ropes are off.'' This year, the Dodgers gave Kershaw his first Opening Day start; at 23 years, 12 days, he became the third-youngest pitcher in Los Angeles Dodgers history to start Opening Day, behind only Fernando Valenzuela and Don Drysdale. With a national TV audience on ESPN, Kershaw was brilliant, as he threw seven shutout innings, struck out nine and beat Lincecum, 2-1, to continue his mastery of the Giants.
Kershaw has thrown at least 84 pitches in every start this season and has thrown more than 100 in five starts, including 122 on April 21 against the Braves. He has had only one bad start, his last one (six runs in 6 2/3 innings) against the Reds, and even then he was impressive.
"I was watching him throw and I was thinking, 'God, his stuff is great,''' said Dodgers infielder Jamey Carroll. "But he missed a spot here and there, something that young guys do sometimes. But it doesn't happen very often with him. When it's his day to pitch, the ball is in his hand the whole day. There are days when you look at him and you don't say, 'He's really going to be good someday,' because you watch and think, 'He's already there.'''
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Tim Kurkjian on Twitter: @Kurkjian_ESPN