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Monday, April 1, 2013
Updated: April 2, 12:11 PM ET
Kershaw breaks character

By Molly Knight
ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw thoroughly dominated the San Francisco Giants on Monday afternoon, allowing just four baserunners en route to shutting out the World Series champions 4-0.

But his dazzling performance on the mound will be just a footnote in the memories of the 53,000 fans who were lucky enough to attend the game at Chavez Ravine on Opening Day.

With the game scoreless in the bottom of the eighth, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly let Kershaw hit for himself to lead off the inning. It was a bold move: the 25-year-old southpaw came into the game with a career .146 batting average and just one extra-base hit in 332 plate appearances. He'd also struck out in his first two at-bats versus Giants ace Matt Cain earlier in the day.

No matter.

Kershaw whacked the first pitch he saw from reliever George Kontos high into the sky and sprinted out of the batter's box. As he watched the ball sail further and further, he ran to first base with his eyebrows raised and his mouth open in disbelief. And when he rounded the bag and the ball cleared the fence to give the Dodgers the lead, he screamed and kept on running.

Then when he reached third he did something none of his teammates could ever remember seeing him do in a game in which he was a participant: he smiled.

"He was stunned," said Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp of Kershaw's first career home run.

"I was stunned," Kershaw concurred.

"You should have done the Kirk Gibson fist-pump," said Kemp, in a nod to the most famous home run in Dodger history. And at that Kershaw laughed and beamed again, his cheeks stretched and red with joy and embarrassment.

Clayton Kershaw
You'll rarely see Kershaw smiling on the field.

That Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in the National League is not up for debate. He won the Cy Young at age 23 and finished second last year at 24. Last week, Justin Verlander signed a seven-year, $180 million contract with the Detroit Tigers -- a record amount for a pitcher. Kershaw may be an eyelash away from inking a deal that smashes that number. His teammates certainly think he deserves it. "Verlander doesn't hit home runs!" an unidentified Dodger yelled on his way out of the clubhouse after the game.

Kershaw doesn't hit home runs either -- at least not until today. The last time he went yard was in a spring training game on his 21st birthday (March 19, 2009). On every birthday since Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis has wished him a happy anniversary of his last home run.

Kershaw appears to have taken the good-natured ribbing to heart. In 2010 he hit a paltry .055. The following year he raised his average to .225. When asked what changed, Kershaw simply replied he was tired of being so awful with a bat.

Today's home run was another product of his disdain for mediocrity. "I went up there swinging at the first pitch because I really didn't want to strike out again," he said.

Kershaw's physical gifts might only be matched by the freakish tenacity with which he goes about his daily business. He is loathe to let anything break his concentration. After the game he could not recall ever granting the home crowd's request for a curtain call.

"It was bizarre to see him sitting there trying to refocus [after that home run], knowing he had to go out and pitch the ninth," said Ellis, who calls Kershaw his best friend. "I didn't want to mess him up so I pretty much left him alone."

Ellis didn't need to worry. After Kershaw broke the scoreless tie, the most potent offense money can buy finally woke up and hung an additional three runs on the board.

That was more than enough for Kershaw. He shut the Giants down in the ninth on nine pitches, and needed just 94 total to collect all 27 outs. When it was over he and Ellis embraced and a jubilant Kemp dumped a bucket of ice water over his head. He looked out at the thousands of fans who were on their feet and finally -- finally -- seemed to revel in the moment. He tipped his cap and let their cheers rain down, soaked and soaking in their affection.

After the game Kershaw was back to his normal self. When he left the field after what was probably the greatest single game of his life, he headed straight for the weight room to ride an exercise bike by himself. The celebration would have to wait. There was work to be done.