SAN DIEGO -- The end of a season we won't soon forget came rather anti-climactically, Clayton Kershaw working one minute on what looked for all the world like his sixth complete game and in the next minute, in a matter of about seven pitches, being unceremoniously pulled from that game and taking that long walk to the dugout for the final time until next spring.
It didn't change the result much, the Los Angeles Dodgers riding another stellar performance by Kershaw to a fairly sweatless, 6-2 victory over the San Diego Padres before 32,387 on Sunday at Petco Park, and it certainly didn't change Kershaw's season, one that should and probably will net him his first career Cy Young Award.
And anyway, it wasn't as if Dodgers manager Don Mattingly didn't at least consider sticking with his ace, who had a four-run lead in the eighth inning and had thrown 93 pitches, his fewest in more than three months in a game he wasn't ejected from.
"I knew we had a few extra days until his next start," Mattingly said, referring to the 193 days until Kershaw presumably takes the ball in the Dodgers' season opener on this same mound April 5. "He said he could get the next two guys, but I said, 'Well, too late.' "
And so, Kershaw took a bow and took a seat. And in the three days that are left in the Dodgers' season, he can take a long look back at all the things he accomplished this year, all the things he refused to look back on when he still had business to take care of.
"Right now, I'm just done," Kershaw said after the game. "I have already kind of mentally shut down a little bit. It has been an awesome year. It's just unfortunate we aren't going to make the playoffs. I don't like to look at personal stuff too often or individual stuff, but now is the time when I can start to look back a little bit.
"I learned a lot from this year. Hopefully, next year will be more of the same."
Kershaw says he plans to spend most of the Dodgers' upcoming, season-ending, three-game series against the already-crowned National League West-champion Arizona Diamondbacks relaxing, having fun with his teammates and taking a front-row seat for some big league baseball. He did say he will do at least some of his normal running Monday just to rid his body of the usual soreness on the day after he pitches; that he will probably play catch with Hiroki Kuroda before Kuroda's start on Tuesday night at Chase Field because that has become an important part of Kuroda's routine; and that he will still shag fly balls during batting practice, which is as much a social event as anything else.
Other than that, though, Kershaw is free to reflect. Reflect on stuff like going 21-5, becoming the Dodgers' first 20-game winner in 21 years. Reflect on a season in which he appears to have sewn up the pitching version of the Triple Crown, Philadelphia's Cliff Lee needing to pitch 10 2/3 shutout innings and strike out 17 batters on Monday night in Atlanta to surpass Kershaw for the league ERA and strikeout titles. Reflect on a season in which he posted a league-best 2.28 ERA, tied with the Diamondbacks' Ian Kennedy for the most wins, and blowing away the rest of the league with 248 strikeouts.
And, he is free to wonder over the next six weeks or so whether he truly is the NL Cy Young Award winner. Those ballots must be cast by early Friday, but the result won't be announced until sometime in November.
"There are a lot of good candidates," Kershaw said. "I will let myself think about it a little bit now that it's over."
What the 32 designated voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America are thinking is still anyone's guess, but Kershaw has plenty of support from some of those who don't have a vote, and he picked up a little more in holding the Padres to two runs and four hits over 7 1/3 basically dominating innings.
"I don't vote, but I can speculate that Kershaw is going to win this," Padres manager Bud Black told reporters. "It wouldn't surprise me one bit. I saw a little bit more of a four-pitch mix [Sunday]. Going in, I expected a hard fastball and hard slider, but he threw more curveballs and more changeups than I thought he would throw. [Those] were more in play than what we have seen in the past, which was mostly fastball/hard slider."
That, of course, is a big part of Kershaw's evolution. That ability to use all four pitches at any time and spot them where he wants to is why he has been successful all year, but he also is savvy enough he didn't really show all those cards to the Padres, a team in his own division he faced three times this year, until his last start against them.
Another big part of it is Kershaw's aptitude. He has both the ability and the desire to not only seek knowledge but also to process it. Since he first came to the majors in 2008, his teammates have included Greg Maddux, Derek Lowe, Randy Wolf and Ted Lilly, all established big league veterans and top-tier pitchers who are perfectly willing to share their insights with a younger pitcher who is willing to listen.
"He has been like a sponge," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "There hasn't been a person here that he hasn't watched or talked about the game with. He wants the information, but at the same time, he has a great filter for what works for him and what doesn't. I think that is the toughest thing. A lot of people when they are younger are kind of searching from a routine standpoint."
I suppose this is also the time when we should look back on the highlights of Kershaw's 2011 season, but really, there were just so many of them that it would be hard to recount them all. What sticks in my mind at this point, now that it has ended, is how it began, a handful of media types sitting around a picnic table with Mattingly on the upstairs patio at Camelback Ranch the day before pitchers and catchers were required to report to spring training.
Most of the pitchers already were there that day, when Mattingly revealed to us he already had settled on Kershaw as his Opening Day starter. Never known for my patience or for playing it cool, I immediately broke away from that informal gathering and headed for the clubhouse, where I found Kershaw crouching low in front of his locker with a catcher's mitt on, peering out across the carpeted expanse toward an imaginary pitcher on an imaginary mound.
"I got a new position this year," he said as I approached.
Ignoring his comment, I came right out with what I was there to talk about.
"Donnie just told us you're the opening day starter."
Kershaw appeared taken aback, claimed he hadn't been informed of this and said he would rather speak directly with Mattingly about it before commenting.
Well, we found out from Mattingly on Sunday that he actually had told Kershaw on his way out the door at the end of last season that the assignment would be his, so either Kershaw was faking his surprise or he had a very short memory, but that's all beside the point now.
The point is, if everyone sees everything from a different vantage point, that was my personal view of the beginning of this remarkable season for Kershaw. From then to now, we have seen him beat Tim Lincecum four times in four starts, beat Lincecum's World Series-champion San Francisco Giants five times (without a loss) in six starts, win 20 games, win pitching's Triple Crown, become that bona-fide staff ace that makes you feel like when it's his day to pitch the game is in the bag before he even walks out to the mound.
We have written column after column about him, we have talked about him ad nauseam during TV and radio appearances, we have blogged about him, tweeted about him, analyzed him, poked and prodded at him, marveled at him.
Mostly, though, during those rare times when we have relegated the journalist in us to the back burner to make room for the baseball fan in us, we have appreciated him, and we have relished this unforgettable period of his life that he has let us all in on -- us and his ever-growing legion of fans.
And now, his work finally complete, it is Kershaw's turn to relish it too.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.