Thursday, March 31, 2011 Updated: April 1, 10:02 AM ET
Clayton Kershaw's rise may just stick
By Tony Jackson ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- On a day that began with the Los Angeles Dodgers doing the one thing they seem to do well these days -- which is celebrate their glorious past, this time with Fernando Valenzuela throwing out the ceremonial first pitch -- another promising young left-hander began to forge his own Opening Day legend.
But when the euphoria clears from Clayton Kershaw's decisive takedown of the World Series champions and the Dodgers' season-opening, 2-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants before a sellout crowd of 56,000 on Thursday at Dodger Stadium, there still will be more questions than answers where Kershaw is concerned.
The hope, however, is that this is the year when those answers will start coming with regularity -- in the affirmative.
Clayton Kershaw recorded his 500th career strikeout in his outing against the Giants on Thursday.
Kershaw, as has become his habit over the last year or so, rose to the occasion against one of the league's best starting pitchers, two-time reigning Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. The skeptic will point out this clearly wasn't Lincecum at his best, not on an evening in which he walked three batters and seemed to be in constant trouble in the early innings. That same skeptic also will remind you the notoriously free-swinging Giants were especially so in this game, allowing Kershaw to sail through his seven shutout innings on an economical 96 pitches even though he struck out nine batters.
It is tempting, then, to wonder whether this is the year Kershaw will storm into that elite level of pitchers. That would be the level Lincecum -- whom the Dodgers passed on to take Kershaw with the seventh overall pick in the 2006 amateur draft, leaving Lincecum there for the Giants at No. 10 -- reached years ago.
As much as one game can be an indication, the answer would seem to be a definite maybe or a strong possibly.
"I saw last year the ability that this kid has and his desire to get better," said catcher Rod Barajas, who came to the Dodgers from the New York Mets on a waiver claim last August. "I called it last year. ... I definitely see this kid stepping up and now being up there with the best in baseball. He is special. He is the total package. He can pitch, and he has those secondary pitches. A lot of younger guys have trouble with their secondary pitches. They won't throw their secondary pitches when they are behind in the count. But he has enough confidence to do that."
In a way, the fact the Giants seemed to make it so easy for Kershaw at times by putting balls in play early in counts actually speaks to how far Kershaw has come. Part of the maturation process is learning to take advantage of what an opponent gives you, and the Giants were in a particularly giving mood.
"After that first inning, they started swinging the bats a little more aggressively and putting balls in play early," Kershaw said. "That allowed me to just pitch to contact more. Throwing strikes makes a big difference. For one thing, it allows you to pitch deeper into games. Strikeouts are going to happen, but I don't want to sound like I'm trying to do that. You really want to make sure you're 0-1 every at-bat versus 1-0, because that can make a big difference in the game."
That all sounds pretty basic, but Kershaw has a remarkable grasp of those concepts for a pitcher who turned 23 less than two weeks ago. Although Dodgers officials have always pointed to Kershaw's maturity, there still were many times early in his career when he looked, well, like an immature pitcher. There were too many deep counts, too many walks, not nearly enough innings per start.
The apparent watershed moment for Kershaw came last May 9, when he outdueled the National League's best starting pitcher at the time, Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez. Really, though, Kershaw's true turning point came in an ill-fated, nationally televised game against the New York Yankees on June 27, when he held the then-defending world champs to two runs and four hits over seven innings before closer Jonathan Broxton famously imploded in the ninth.
Kershaw went just 6-6 the rest of the way. More telling, though, was this statistic: beginning with that game, he pitched 112 2/3 innings over his final 17 starts. In his previous 15 starts, he had pitched 83 innings. That represented a jump of more than a full inning per start. Also beginning with that start against the Yankees, Kershaw's strikeout-to-walk ratio improved by more than one, from 2.1:1 to 3.3:1.
Maybe those answers are already coming, after all.
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"Again, he just goes out and controls what he can do," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "He got better and better the latter half [of last season] at controlling the game and controlling his pitch count so he could continuously go deeper into games. You're going to see him, I think, continue to improve. He obviously isn't going to be as good as he was tonight every time out. But at the same time, he feels like he is going to do that. He has certain expectations of himself, and that is all you can really ask of a guy, to have the expectation of keeping his team in the game."
It was a game of impressive numbers for Kershaw, who recorded his 500th career strikeout in the first inning, shaved his career ERA against the Giants to 1.23 and posted the most strikeouts by a Dodgers Opening Day starter since Valenzuela also struck out nine against the San Diego Padres 25 years ago. And by the way, that's $900 in donations to Arise Africa, to which Kershaw and his wife Ellen will give $100 per strikeout this year toward the building of an orphanage in Zambia.
But to Kershaw and the Dodgers, those are all just numbers. And getting to that aforementioned level isn't about numbers. It's about occasions, and rising to them. And a season opener against the defending champions and arguably the best starting pitcher in the league is certainly an occasion worth rising to.
"I didn't see him approach it any differently," Barajas said. "I was kind of surprised, because I certainly had more juices flowing [than usual], and I'm sure a lot of guys did. But in the pregame meetings and when we were warming up, he didn't change one bit. That is a sure sign of a guy who has himself under control."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.