Clayton Kershaw back on big stage

October, 2, 2013
10/02/13
5:25
PM PT
ATLANTA -- Somebody playfully asked Clayton Kershaw on Wednesday if he knew the last year the Los Angeles Dodgers won a World Series.

“Yeah, I was born in ’88,” Kershaw said. “We hear it every day from somewhere or another. We hear it every day.”

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty ImagesIn his last playoff start, against the Phillies in the 2009 NLCS, Clayton Kershaw walked five batters and gave up five runs in less than five innings.
That’s a lot of pressure, one would presume, hearing that every day when you are the pivotal figure on a team that has reached its ultimate goal just once in your lifetime, when you were seven months old. Being the guy the second-largest city in America is banking on to win, possibly, two games in a five-game series, then dominate the rest of the postseason, too, to snap that 25-year drought.

The reason Kershaw seems like such a safe bet to fulfill all those expectations is he rarely seems caught up in the moment. That doesn’t mean he’s not feeling it. It doesn’t mean he won’t be trying to get the world to stop spinning when he comes out for the bottom of the first inning in the Dodgers’ NLDS Game 1 versus the Atlanta Braves on Thursday night.

“Surprising to say, but Clayton is human and he’s going to be a little anxious, I’m sure, and a little jacked up,” Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. “I’m hoping we can get through that first inning pretty smoothly and let everything just kind of settle down.”

Is it fair to call Kershaw great this early in his career, even after he picks up his second Cy Young Award this November, if he never wins a World Series or he doesn’t pitch well in the postseason? His regular-season numbers by this age stack up against any -- literally any -- of the greatest pitchers you could name.

And the 2013 postseason is a key one for Kershaw to secure his legacy at an age when most pitchers are still trying to launch their careers. It’s impossible to predict when the Dodgers will get to this stage again. For now, Kershaw’s postseason résumé includes five games, just two of them starts, when he was 20 and 21.

In his last playoff start, against the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2009 NLCS, Kershaw couldn’t make it out of the fifth inning. He walked five batters and gave up five runs.

He’s a different pitcher now, not just a power guy with a good curveball, but a four-pitch veteran who throws quality strikes and has learned to induce earlier contact to pitch deeper into games. He’s also driven to succeed, like many great athletes, by the pain of past failure.

“He didn’t pitch as well as he wanted to that last time against the Phillies, and I know he’s been ready to get back on this stage for a long time,” Ellis said. “It’s all he ever talks about. The one thing that drives Clayton -- it’s not fame, it’s not finances. It’s winning baseball games.”

Kershaw said he has always enjoyed watching the October starts of another Texas lefty, one who happens to have 19 career postseason wins: Andy Pettitte.

The Dodgers are favored in this series despite the fact they’re opening on the road. That’s not because they have a bigger payroll or more powerful lineup or better bullpen. They’re favored because of Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

“It’s a plus if we pitch good,” Kershaw said. “It’s not if we don’t.”

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said he has never discussed the idea of bringing Kershaw back on short rest should L.A. fall in a 1-2 hole entering Game 4. The Dodgers are planning to hand the ball in that game to Ricky Nolasco, who is 0-2 with a 12.75 ERA in his past three starts.

Should they change their mind -- and it’s hard to believe they won’t at least discuss it at some point -- Kershaw said he’d be game. He has never pitched on fewer than four days’ rest.

“If the opportunity presented itself, I’m definitely not opposed to it,” Kershaw said.

When your best player doesn’t hide from anything at this time of year, you tend to enter these things in pretty good spirits.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Yasiel Puig
BA HR RBI R
.296 16 69 92
OTHER LEADERS
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
WC. Kershaw 21
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239