Left-hander Clayton Kershaw won the NL Cy Young Award on Thursday, becoming the first Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher to be so honored since Eric Gagne in 2003 and the first Dodgers starter to win it since Orel Hershiser in 1988.
Kershaw won the award handily in balloting by a select panel of 32 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He received 27 of 32 first-place votes, three seconds and two thirds for a total of 207 points, 74 more than runner-up Roy Halladay of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Halladay received four first-place votes, with the last one going to the Diamondbacks' Ian Kennedy.
"You never think you'll get to do, or win something like that," Kershaw said Thursday during an interview with ESPN. "It's just so special and I'm not taking it for granted. I'm just soaking it all in right now."
Kershaw attributed an improved ability to pound the strike zone as the reason for his success in what was by far the best of his four major league seasons.
"Throwing strikes is an important part of it for me,'' he said. "Being in the league three or four years and gaining consistency and experience has made me more confident throwing in the strike zone. The other part is being able to throw offspeed pitches for strikes. I threw the slider a lot more this year, and now it is easier for me to throw it for strikes if I am behind in the count or need to get back into the count.''
Kershaw, 23, tied for the National League lead in wins with 21 while losing just five times. He also led the league in both ERA (2.28) and strikeouts (248), giving him pitching's version of the Triple Crown. He also was named to his first All-Star team and pitched a perfect fifth inning in a 5-1 NL victory.
In his fourth season in the majors, Kershaw set career bests in wins, ERA, strikeouts, games started (33) and innings pitched (233 1/3), and he also had a WHIP under one (0.977) for the first time. He posted two shutouts and three other complete games.
"Clayton represents everything good about this game and this award," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said in a statement released by the team. "He is a tremendous worker, a student of baseball and a great teammate. He's always trying to get better and deserves all the accolades that come his way."
Kershaw was especially tough after the All-Star break -- his own second-half resurgence mirrored that of the team -- going 12-1 with a 1.31 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than 5-to-1. He didn't lose after Aug. 7, winning his final eight decisions and eight of his final nine starts, and allowing no more than one run in seven of those starts.
Current teammates Matt Kemp and James Loney were on hand to show support.
"It's an unbelievable feeling for me in the outfield when Clayton's on the mound," Kemp said. "It's like a day off for me in the outfield -- all I have to worry about is hitting and scoring him some runs. When he's locked in and hitting his spots, he's tough to hit. ... I knew he was destined the whole year to win the Cy Young and it showed."
The most compelling subplot of Kershaw's season, arguably, was his four starts against San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young Award winner and a pitcher who, as a college junior, was drafted three spots lower than Kershaw in the first round in 2006. Kershaw was a high school senior when he was drafted.
Kershaw won all four showdowns against Lincecum, by scores of 2-1, 1-0, 2-1 and 2-1, the first of those victories coming in Kershaw's first career Opening Day start. Kershaw allowed a total of one earned run across those starts, giving up 16 hits in 30 1/3 innings while striking out 36 and walking five.
With each one of those victories, Kershaw downplayed the fact it came against Lincecum.
"I still downplay it,'' Kershaw said. "It isn't important who you're pitching against. You're facing the eight guys in their lineup. Timmy is an awesome pitcher, no disrespect to him, and he won two Cy Youngs for a reason. I love to watch him pitch. He is a special, special talent.
"But all I know about him is he throws right-handed and throws a lot of offspeed stuff for me hitting, and he hits left-handed so I have an advantage there as a pitcher. That is really all I look at.''
Kershaw has set a very high bar for himself at an early stage of his career, leading to the question of where he goes from here.
"I think whenever you have Cy Young next to your name, there are going to be expectations that go along with that,'' he said. "Whenever I look at a pitcher and see that he has won the Cy Young Award, what I'm thinking is that this guy better be good. That is what I hope to be. I hope people will have that expectation for me. I hope people expect me to be good, because I expect myself to be good.''
Kershaw joins Dodgers pitchers Don Newcombe (1956), Don Drysdale (1962), Sandy Koufax (1963, '65 and '66), Mike Marshall (1974), Fernando Valenzuela (1981), Hershiser and Gagne as Cy Young Award winners. Newcombe, Drysdale and Koufax all won their awards when the Cy Young was given to just one major league pitcher. The award was given in each league beginning in 1967.
Valenzuela, Newcombe and Maury Wills were present at the ceremony.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.