Clayton Kershaw has arrived
The young pitcher has become the cornerstone of the Dodgers in only his fourth season
Gerardo Parra may have deserved a ball in the ribs for the way he'd shown up Dodgers reliever Hong-Chih Kuo the night before, but it wasn't worth it. He wasn't worth it. Not with what Clayton Kershaw had riding on this game.
On the night of Sept. 14, just six months after his 23rd birthday, Kershaw led the National League with 231 strikeouts, a 2.36 ERA and was second with 18 wins. The Cy Young Award wasn't just a possibility, it was his to wrap up.
All he had to do in his final three starts of the year was what he had been doing all season: stay within himself, pitch his game, execute.
Before the game, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson received phone calls from the league office, cautioning them against any kind of retribution for the incident between Parra and Kuo the night before.
Mattingly mentioned the call to Kershaw before the game. At least one well-respected veteran player let the pitcher know that no one was expecting him to retaliate.
In the end, it was Kershaw's call.
His risk, his award to potentially lose.
When Kershaw's second pitch in the top of the sixth inning hit Parra on his front elbow, plate umpire Bill Welke ejected the pitcher immediately.
The next day I asked the same veteran player who had told Kershaw it would be OK to back away from this fight whether or not Kershaw had proved something to him, whether he liked him more or less than he had the day before.
"Neither," the player said. "I already knew him."
Mattingly came running out of the dugout like he was stealing second base. He was livid. Kershaw's pitch had left enough room for interpretation that Welke could have simply warned him. It was a brushback, not a beanball. Hard enough to make a point, but not hard enough to hurt Parra.
It was a losing argument -- Welke had already made his decision -- but Mattingly had to make it and had to mean it.
It wasn't so long ago that Mattingly was 23 years old and learning how to lead a team, too. In 1984 he hit .343 with 110 RBIs for the Yankees and finished fifth in the American League MVP balloting, but Don Baylor, Willie Randolph and Dave Winfield were the guys being paid to play the leadership role.
"It's harder for a young guy," he said. "I know in New York I had success early and people started looking to me to lead, but it's hard when you're a guy who has only been there a couple years and you've got guys who've been on your club for 10 years.
"You can still lead by the way you play, and gain respect by the things you do."
There was nothing Kershaw needed to say afterward.
"No," he said. "I didn't mean to [hit Parra]. The first at-bat I threw him all away and he hit a double so the next at-bat I gotta pitch him in."
Whatever the consequences were, he'd live with them. An hour had passed since he'd been sent from the field but his hair was still wet from the showers. He'd watched the rest of the game in the clubhouse with his uniform on. He looked angrier than usual, boyish in his face and frame, but with enough scraggle on his chin to suggest he doesn't see himself that way.
"I never felt like a kid," Kershaw said, swatting the question away with a little irritation. "We're all peers up here. This is a clubhouse full of teammates. No one is a kid."
A baseball stadium comes to life every morning around 11. Slowly at first, as men and women who have a way with dirt, grass and water wipe away the last marks and memories of the game before. They are methodical about their work. It means something to them. A major league baseball field should always look good, even when the team that calls it home does not.
Around 1:30 in the afternoon, when the mid-September sun begins descending from its highest point, Kershaw and Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis emerge from the clubhouse.
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They are unlikely friends. Ellis, the 30-year-old catcher who took six years to make it to the big leagues and works every day like he never wants to go back to the minors. Kershaw, the baby-faced young star coming into his own.
Ellis can't remember when he started running with Kershaw on his off days, only that he always does. So on the day after Kershaw was ejected for hitting Gerardo Parra, while MLB execs reviewed the play to decide whether he should be punished further, Kershaw and Ellis run. Fourteen sprints from foul pole to foul pole, pausing only to stretch a hamstring.
As they run, a stadium employee taking a break near the end of his early-morning shift asks if I know which players those are down on the field.
"Kershaw and Ellis," I tell him. He nods, but says nothing. He's been around this park long enough to know what it means.
"Some guys can look good on paper," Mattingly said. "They can get away with things, but to be really good, you have to pay a price. The more you pay, usually the more return you get."
Looking back on it now, it seems to have happened quickly. But for those tasked with helping Kershaw grow into the pitcher he was supposed to be, the road to being the Dodgers' ace seems long and narrow.
He broke into the big leagues in 2008 with unbelievable stuff, the poise of a man who had lived much more of life, and enough confidence to get through the rough spots ahead. But he was also only 20 years old with just a year and a half of minor league ball under his belt.
He knew how to throw three pitches well. A 94-97 mph fastball, a changeup and a devastating curveball Dodgers Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully called "Public Enemy No. 1" the first time he saw it during a spring training game.
By May of 2009, Kershaw had convinced everyone in the organization he belonged at the big league level, but he had also begun to stall enough that the Dodgers began to wonder whether they had given him too much too soon. Some worried he would plateau and wondered whether it might be best to sell high on him. The Dodgers were in a pennant race that year and pitchers like Cliff Lee were going to be available at the trade deadline.
"He was just level," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "Nothing was happening."
He was also still just 21 years old.
"Everybody was expecting so much and he was still growing," Honeycutt said.
Kershaw's curveball was so good no one wanted to swing at it. Had he been able to throw it consistently for strikes, batters would have had no choice. But because he couldn't, good hitters just waited him out.
After hours of studying Kershaw on tape, Honeycutt noticed he stood too far toward the third-base side of the rubber when he threw a curveball, causing it to break off the plate.
He encouraged Kershaw to stand more toward the middle of the rubber, but Kershaw shook him off. When you've been doing things the same way your entire life, it's hard to wrap your head around changing things up.
Mattingly, then the Dodgers' hitting coach, studied Kershaw and explained to him how he would tell his hitters to attack the young pitcher.
"You basically cut out the curveball, hit all fastballs and look only at the inner half of the plate," Mattingly said.
Honeycutt relayed that information to Dodgers manager Joe Torre and Kershaw. He was firm, but calm. Torre was insistent. The adjustment needed to be made and eventually Kershaw realized it.
"There's a point when being stubborn gets you in trouble," Kershaw said. "I mean, at the same time you got to the big leagues and through the minor leagues doing your own thing, but once you get here, it takes a lot of adjustments to stay here. I had to learn. It took a little while."
During a side session in Philadelphia in mid-May of 2009, Honeycutt came back with more. He had evidence this time. Pitch charts, stats, even an excerpt from "Nolan Ryan's Pitcher's Bible."
"I told him, 'Look at this. Even Nolan Ryan says, if he didn't get his breaking ball over for a strike more than 50 percent of the time, he lost,'" Honeycutt said.
Then he suggested that Kershaw learn to throw a slider.
The story goes that Kershaw learned how to grip the slider during a bullpen session in Chicago in late May of 2009, messed around with it the rest of that season and then started throwing it a lot more in 2010.
He took to it so quickly it's hard to remember a time when he didn't throw it. He throws it so frequently now, in fact, the once-famous curveball has become a secondary weapon. His changeup is just there to remind you he has it.
"The slider's not that hard to learn," he explained. "You just grip it a certain way and throw it as hard as you can. I think it took me a month or so to command it. It's easier to throw for a strike than a curveball. So now it's just another thing for [hitters] to have in the back of their heads."
Talk has little meaning for him. His focus is elsewhere.
There was a time Honeycutt worried that the pressure of the Cy Young race might get into his ace's head. That the extra demands on his time would disrupt his focus or break his rhythm.
On the day after he hit Parra, Kershaw did interviews with the MLB Network, the players' association and Fox Sports Prime Ticket, then spent a half hour tweeting with fans as part of the team's social media campaign. His busy agenda was an annoyance, not a problem. He arrived at the park a little early, knocked out the extra requests, then ran foul poles with Ellis.
"I think I like where he's at right now," Honeycutt said. "There's a lot of stuff going on right now, so he's just focusing in. Keeping it in. Like, 'All I want to do is pitch. I don't want to talk about Cy Young, don't compare me to anybody else, I'm just trying to do what I do.'"
All these years later, it's hard for Dodgers assistant general manager Logan White to say if he'd do the same thing if given the same choice he had on draft day of 2006. The Dodgers had the seventh and the 26th picks of the first round and were determined to draft two great young arms.
That draft class was filled with 'em. Luke Hochevar went first overall to the Royals; Greg Reynolds, Brad Lincoln, Brandon Morrow and Andrew Miller were picked in the top six. Tim Lincecum, Max Scherzer, Kyle Drabek and Ian Kennedy were gone by the middle of the round. All of them have become major leaguers.
But White wanted Kershaw.
Lincecum intrigued everybody after his unbelievable junior season at the University of Washington. Outfielder Tyler Colvin was tempting, too. There was even some talk of taking Bryan Morris, a hard-throwing right-hander with signability issues, who ended up falling to the Dodgers at 26 and later became part of the 2008 trade for Manny Ramirez.
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White tried talking himself into one of the other players, all college guys with more experience and maturity, but he just couldn't get past the big high school lefty from Dallas.
"It was like deciding between Secretariat and Man o' War," White said of the choice between Lincecum and Kershaw that year. "The decider was that Kershaw was left-handed, bigger, younger and had an off-the-charts makeup.
For the past five years, White has lived with the idea that he might've chosen incorrectly. Lincecum rocketed to the big leagues in a little over a year and won two NL Cy Young Awards while Kershaw was still developing his slider and learning to command his fastball.
White defended the pick to himself and others by preaching patience and trusting his gut. The kid was special; he just had to grow.
So it had to be a delicious coincidence for White that Kershaw finished off his 20th win and penultimate argument for his first Cy Young Award by beating Lincecum and the Giants for the fourth time this season.
"We'd have been happy with either," White said, refusing to gloat. "I'm just happy we were smart enough to get one of them."
For all the maturity, you forget how young Kershaw still is until he appears in front of his locker after becoming the first Dodgers pitcher in 21 years to win 20 games with wet, messy hair; long khaki shorts; tennis shoes; and a faded blue T-shirt with the words "Midget Militia" (a nod to his undersized teammates Aaron Miles and Jamey Carroll). This is what he wears to the most high-profile media moment of his young career?
Across the way, Barajas hurries from the shower to offer his thoughts on Kershaw's place in the NL Cy Young race.
At 35, the veteran catcher is near the end of his time in the majors. In 13 seasons he's caught some of the best pitchers in the game: Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson in Arizona, Roy Halladay in Toronto, and now Kershaw.
"The crazy thing is, I caught those guys in their primes, in their early 30s," Barajas said. "This kid is 23 years old and he's already doing what they did. There's no sign of him even peaking yet."
In the corner of the clubhouse, another 23-year-old watches closely.
Dee Gordon is a new Dodger, though from the looks of things, he'll be staying a long while. Like Kershaw, he has always been a top prospect, a player for whom the future is both an expectation and something to live up to.
After the trade of Rafael Furcal to St. Louis, Gordon became the everyday shortstop sooner than the Dodgers had planned, and before he was fully formed. To be what he is supposed to be, he'll need to keep growing under the bright lights.
So he watches how Kershaw handles it all. How he moves through the crowd in front of his locker after the game, head down, already focused on what comes next.
In January, back when the Dodgers were still deciding whether he would begin the year at Triple-A Albuquerque or repeat Double-A Chattanooga, Gordon arrived at the Dodgers' spring training complex a few weeks early to do some extra work with infield instructor Jody Reed.
They spent hours every day out on the back fields with no one around. The days were cold and long. The work was tedious.
One day Kershaw showed up to watch. He grabbed a plastic bucket, sat behind Gordon at shortstop, and watched him work.
"Just being a teammate, man," Gordon said. "I was working hard, he was making it not as tough. It felt good to see a guy that I wanted to play with sitting there paying attention to what I was doing."
Whatever happens in the NL Cy Young voting, Clayton Kershaw will end this season at the top of his game and the game itself.
He's here because he has put in the time and because of those who were patient enough to wait.
"I know it seems like he could've just added those pieces right away," Mattingly said. "But when guys are coming up ... it's like babies. Babies are not eating steak before they get off the formula. There's times for everything. They have to go through the phases to get there.
"Kersh is where he is today because he's already had the experiences of going through so many things. He's crossed the thresholds he had to go through."
He has not arrived alone, however.
A team has followed.