Do we appreciate Clayton Kershaw enough? Perhaps we do and this column is just an overreaction to an issue that doesn't really exist.
But let's back up one moment. Let me ask you this: Who have we heard more about this year, Gregory Polanco or Andrew McCutchen? Which pitcher's start gets trumpeted as a big deal every time out, Masahiro Tanaka or Felix Hernandez? What do we keep reading or hearing about more with the Cubs, Anthony Rizzo's tearing up the majors or Kris Bryant's tearing up minors?
You know where I'm going. I get it. The new car with the gleaming paint job and spotless interior is a lot more exciting than the same car two years later when it's littered with dog hair, pine needles and potato chip crumbs you can't clean up under the front seat.
Before his no-hitter last week, what were the big storylines about Kershaw this year?
1. Made one start in Australia and then missed all of April with the first DL stint of his year.
2. Omigod, he gave up a home run on his curveball!!!!
3. In his third start back from the DL, he had that seven-run blowup when the Diamondbacks knocked him out in the second inning.
Hey, some of that was understandable. Kershaw's landing on the disabled list for 45 days is a big story considering his importance to the Dodgers. When Brandon Hicks homered off a curveball on May 11, he was the first batter to do so since 2011. That seven-run inning against the Diamondbacks in Kershaw's next start bloated his ERA, but it also created a misleading impression that something was potentially "wrong" with him.
I went back and watched that inning. It wasn't all bad luck, although there was a one-hop single off the home-plate dirt that bounced over Adrian Gonzalez's head and a broken-bat single through a drawn-in infield. But the Diamondbacks did hit three triples in the inning, and Kershaw couldn't get his curveball down in the strike zone. Cliff Pennington even drilled an 0-2 curve for one of those triples -- considering batters had hit .093 against Kershaw last year with an 0-2 count, that certainly was strange.
But that's all it was: one of those innings. Kershaw's ERA after that game was 4.43. We were still mourning the injury to Jose Fernandez, the Next Great Thing, but there was Tanaka to steal our attention, a shiny, new toy in the game's biggest media market.
Meanwhile, Kershaw beat the Phillies 2-0. He gave up three runs in seven innings in a 3-2 loss to the Reds. We hit June and the Giants were the story in the NL West, having already opened up a 7.5-game lead over the Dodgers. Kershaw beat the White Sox. He allowed one run against the Rockies, and then one run against the Diamondbacks. And then the 15-strikeout no-hitter; Kershaw was perfect, even if his defense was not. That game was kind of like a punch to our gut: Oh, yeah, he's still the best pitcher in the game, just in case you've forgotten.
His follow-up performance in Kansas City on Tuesday was more workmanlike than dominant, which almost sounds unfair to say considering he tossed eight shutout innings with eight strikeouts. The Royals scratched out six hits and only an excellent play by second baseman Miguel Rojas with two outs in the seventh and runners at the corners kept the shutout intact. Kershaw came back for the eighth at 102 pitches, holding a 1-0 lead and facing the top of the Kansas City order. In part due to the back problem that landed him on the DL, Don Mattingly has been a little conservative with Kershaw's pitch counts so far. The 107 pitches in the no-hitter were his season high. But that eighth was a sign of Kershaw at his best, a guy with complete focus when it's most needed. He struck out Lorenzo Cain on three pitches, got Eric Hosmer to ground out on the first pitch and then got Billy Butler to fly out on a 1-0 fastball. Six pitches.
The final ended up 2-0, and Kershaw is now 8-2 with a 2.24 ERA. He has 94 strikeouts and nine walks. Appreciate the brilliance.
Growing up in Seattle, I remember in 1984 when Alvin Davis, who would win Rookie of the Year, and Mark Langston, who would win 17 games and lead the league in strikeouts, burst on to the scene. Back then, we didn't know a lot about prospects, and thus didn't have crazy expectations. When they proved to be so good, it was thrilling and exciting, much like when Fernandez started blowing people away last season. Fernandez was certainly a top prospect, but we didn't know he'd be so good. That made it a lot more fun.
But now when a top prospect like Oscar Taveras gets called up and doesn't immediately hit .300 for the Cardinals, everyone acts disappointed. Bryce Harper isn't an MVP candidate at 21? Let's move on to somebody else. It's not just Mike Trout syndrome, in which his performance has created unfair expectations for every other young player. This has been the trend for years now.
I'm not even suggesting there's anything wrong with all that. New blood is good for the game, great for discussion, great for fans of those teams, great fodder for the Internet.
I guess I'm just saying: The best players in the game have done it over a period of time. We should appreciate their greatness as much the potential greatness of the new kids (or Japanese vet). I'm reminded of when Pedro Martinez was in his glory years with the Red Sox. Every game he pitched at Fenway was a celebration, fans waving Dominican flags, cheering loudly and passionately throughout the game. If you could catch him on TV, you had to watch.
That's how we should view Clayton Kershaw: It's a big event every time he starts, even if he's relative old news now at the ripe old age of 26. He's Pedro; he's Koufax; he's Kershaw, and it's something to see.