- Tim Keown, ESPN Senior Writer
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YOU DON'T GO to a question-and-answer session at an MLB town hall seeking insight. The format is cotton candy for the season-ticket holder's soul -- low on intensity and high on idolatry. There is that rare instance, however, when an inane question accidentally becomes incisive. Like this one, lobbed in the direction of Giants catcher and recent father of twins Buster Posey: Would you rather get up in the middle of the night with two screaming twins or hit off Clayton Kershaw? Posey gave the answer you'd expect but for a reason you might not. "Kershaw, I want some of him," he said. "We owe him."
His response didn't elicit the customary overlaugh that fuels most fan-player interactions. In fact, nobody laughed. The crowd seemed to sense the seriousness of the tone, accentuated by the set of Posey's jaw and the reaction of Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, who sat nearby and nodded with a very un-Lincecum-like steeliness.
For that, there's a simple explanation: Lincecum vs. Kershaw, the pitching rivalry of our time. They faced each other four times last year, a fortuitous fluke of the schedule, and Kershaw won them all. It was a source of pride for the Dodgers; it was acid reflux for the Giants.
But to suggest that the stark numbers tell the story (Kershaw 4-0, Lincecum 0-3 with a no-decision) is to miss the point. The Lincecum-Kershaw matchups were epic tales reminiscent of the early 1960s, when the mound was tall and bats were dead. Each of the games ended either 1-0 or 2-1, with the starters going at least seven innings. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time two pitchers in their award-winning primes faced each other in a four-pack was 1975, when reigning Cy Young winner Catfish Hunter dueled Jim Palmer. They went 2-2, and Palmer walked away with the next two Cys.
Even more, Lincecum-Kershaw is also the story of an unlikely pairing. They shared space in the first round of the 2006 draft -- Kershaw out of high school at No. 7, Lincecum out of University of Washington at No. 10 -- and little else. Lincecum, baseball's kinesthetic wonder, is the rarest of breeds: a small righthander who overcame baseball's acknowledged size bias to win consecutive Cy Young Awards in '08 and '09. Kershaw, last year's Cy winner, is a pitching cliché: a hard-throwing, 6'3", 225-pound lefthander whose talent didn't necessitate advanced statistical metrics or particularly astute scouting. Baseball is curious that way. A guy with Lincecum's physique is doubted for the things he can do. A guy with Kershaw's is excused for the things he can't.
Their budding competition is special because it happened organically, becoming a great rivalry within an already great rivalry, with each game building on the previous one to create a fascinating snapshot of living history. "I hope they're talking about it 50 years from now," says Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "Every era's got special matchups, and I've got a feeling this one is going to go on for a while."
Lincecum vs. Kershaw, Game 1
March 31, Opening Day, Dodger Stadium
Mike Macdougal, Dodgers reliever: You've got the two best guys in the league from the start. I'm thinking, I'm going to have the day off. Nobody can hit either one of these guys.
Don Mattingly, Dodgers manager: That game started the breakout for Clayton. We knew what we had, but he started off showing he could keep his pitch count down, use more of his pitches, get early outs but still get a bunch of strikeouts. He didn't go 0-2 and then wait 'til 3-2 to put a guy away. His attitude was, Let's get this over with.
This was a game for those who prefer their omens straight, no chaser.
Lincecum gave up one unearned run -- and lost. Kershaw cruised through seven shutout innings. Both teams scored a run off relievers.
Dodgers 2, Giants 1
Kershaw 7IP 4H 0R 0ER 1BB 9K
Lincecum 7IP 5H 1R 0ER 3BB 5K
It wasn't hard to predict Kershaw's arrival. Like meteorologists tracking cloud clusters by satellite, anyone who'd ever held a bat could tell stardom was inevitable. In many ways, his emergence followed the same storm path as Lincecum's: predictable and startling.
Kershaw was 21 years old in 2009, his first full season, when he led the NL in hits per nine innings (6.3). The next year, he struck out 212 and had a 2.91 ERA. And even before last year's 248-strikeout season, he averaged more than a punch-out per inning. But if his first three seasons were an invitation to the party, last season was the bash.
He won the Cy Young and the NL pitching triple crown, but he was at his best in his five wins against the defending-champion Giants. (He beat Madison Bumgarner once, for variety's sake.) The Giants finished four back in the wild card, so they could easily wonder where they might have been without running into Kershaw.
Bochy and his staff were in charge of the NL All-Star team last July. A day before the game, Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti went through the clubhouse to outline his intentions to each pitcher. He told Kershaw he would definitely get an inning, but before he moved to the next locker, Righetti said: "You might be the best guy here. You just don't know it yet."
It's still hard to tell whether he knows it now. His humility seems to come honestly. One of the first things he did after he won the Cy Young was tell
the Dodgers he wanted pitching coach Rick Honeycutt to be at the ceremony in New York. Other than his 10-day trip to Africa, he spent the off-season at home in Dallas, dutifully calling his high school coach to ask permission every time he needed to throw.
Fred Oliver, the coach at Highland Park High School, has a thick Texas drawl and a comic's timing. "Before he left for Arizona, Clayton called and asked if he could come out and throw a bullpen," Oliver says. "I said, 'Sure, I'll have a catcher for you.'
"Clayton was running and stretching down near the bullpen, and my catcher hadn't seen him. He said to me: 'Coach, I'm not feeling too good. I think I should go home.'?"
Oliver looked at the young man and said: "Son, you've got two options: 1) You can go on home and let your mama cuddle you up a little bit and make you feel better, or 2) you can tell your grandkids you caught a Cy Young winner when you were a senior in high school."
The kid's eyes got wide. He was looking better already. "Clayton's here?" he asked. "Then I'm staying."
Lincecum vs. Kershaw, Game 2
July 20, AT&T Park
Javy Guerra, Dodgers closer: I'll never forget it: A day game at AT&T, Dodgers-Giants, full house. Clayton came out dealing. I should say both guys did.
Lincecum: Clayton changed how he pitched as we went along. First game it was mostly fastballs. This game he went with a lot of 90 mph cutters.
Brian Wilson, Giants closer: Kershaw would strike out two, Timmy would strike out two. Kershaw wouldn't allow a hit, Timmy wouldn't allow a hit.
Righetti: It's like watching a dog pack run around. Dogs test each other, mess with each other. That's what you've got here.
Guerra: I usually start my routine in the seventh inning. I go down to the bullpen, stretch and run a little. In this game, I don't know why, but I started it in the sixth. I was pumped. Extra-ready.
Dodgers catcher Dioner Navarro (now with the Reds) broke up the scoreless game with a leadoff homer in the seventh.
Guerra: A 1-0 lead going to the ninth. And now it's my turn. Any time a guy goes eight strong, you can't give it up. All you can think is, Shut the door. Your heart's racing.
Dodgers 1, Giants 0
Kershaw 8IP 3H 0R 0ER 1BB 12K
Lincecum 7IP 5H 1R 1ER 4BB 7K
Lincecum's long-hair cool does a thorough job of hiding the fierceness within. The look, exuding casual disinterest, is part diversion, part lie. Deep down inside, Lincecum is an old-school baseball guy, Bob Gibson in skater-dude motif.
Until recently, he didn't see the point in running. He jokingly told Bochy, "I don't run the ball up to the plate, do I?" He never ices, adhering to his father's motto that "ice is for cocktails." Yet he's the best athlete on the squad, consistently testing highest on the team in nonbaseball activities like the vertical jump. "We have some good athletes," Bochy says, "but this guy's ridiculous. He could have been a gymnast."
Lincecum quit fast food this winter and lost the weight (more than 20 pounds) that he gained last year in a misguided attempt to equate heft with velocity and endurance. "His velocity comes from his hips," says Giants announcer Mike Krukow. "He wasn't as quick with extra weight. He knows that now."
And how do you define the term "good teammate?" Maybe like this: Through the entire 2011 season, through the interminable days of Aaron Rowand hitting leadoff and the endless loop of Aubrey Huff two-hoppers to second, Lincecum never once complained about lack of support. Pitching for the lowest-scoring NL offense in the past 19 seasons, a team for which a three-ball count constituted a rally, a team that failed to score with him on the mound in 10 of his starts, he never inferred that it might be even the slightest bit annoying to have a 13-14 record, despite a 2.74 ERA.
He was given every opportunity to bemoan his fate, yet he swam past the bait like a fish that understands the ramifications of the barbed hook.
Lincecum vs. Kershaw, Game 3
Sept. 9, AT&T Park
In the bottom of the first, Giants leadoff hitter Justin Christian reached on an error. He stole second and scored on a single by Pablo Sandoval. The Giants had their first lead of 2011 against Kershaw.
Mattingly: Clayton was pissed. Pissed. You could see it on his face: "I can't give up runs." I watched him walk into the dugout and thought, Hmm, that's a little different. They can say they don't approach it differently, but that moment told me something.
Chris Stewart, Giants catcher: Once we put a run across in the first inning, in
the dugout we were thinking this might finally be the game we get more than one against him.
After the first, Kershaw put up six zeros. Lincecum put up seven. The Giants took that 1-0 lead into the eighth, when Matt Kemp hit a 20-foot broken-bat single with two outs. He stole second. On a 3-and-1 pitch with first base open, Juan Rivera hit a bouncer up the middle that rolled into centerfield. Kemp scored to tie the game. Santiago Casilla relieved Lincecum for the ninth, but the Dodgers' winning run followed the theme: single, sacrifice, wild pitch and a fielder's choice to score the run.
Stewart: That many one-run games in a row -- what are the odds? We were winning in the eighth, and that was new. It was 1-0 and Timmy was pitching great. But after we got that run, Kershaw just shut us down. It was so frustrating.
The Giants fell to 8.5 games back with 18 to play. After the game, Lincecum told reporters, "We're not trying to just sink."
Dodgers 2, Giants 1
Kershaw 8IP 3H 1R 0ER 1BB 9K
Lincecum 8IP 6H 1R 1ER 2BB 6K
Lincecum vs. Kershaw, Intermission
A word on rivalries
Lincecum: I pitched against Ian Kennedy when he was in college at USC. He was doing the same thing there he's doing right now. I can't remember how the series record went, but I remember one game I threw a curveball, and as soon as I let it go, I knew I should have gone with the fastball. A lefty hit it for
a home run -- it looked like the ball just ran into his bat. That was it. Game over. Kennedy shut it down after that. So I've been there before.
Kershaw: In high school, rivalries were so much bigger because you took it personal. At Highland Park, Wiley was one of our big rivals. They were the worst, just awful. They were creative and funny, but it wasn't funny from our side. They would get these short metal poles and just hit them against the metal dugout railing while I was pitching. I would look over there and think, That's got to annoy you guys more than me. It
was so loud, it was incredible. I was a little more immature in high school, so I responded by getting a little more heated than I should have. I tried to throw it as hard as I possibly could every time. I was still trying to get them out, but I was throwing in a way I probably shouldn't.
It doesn't seem possible to summon personal animosity toward Clayton Kershaw. For one thing, he looks as if he could play a postadolescent Huck Finn. And if one sentence in the English language could dissolve even the slimmest potential for animus, it's this one: He and his wife, Ellen, are building an orphanage in Africa.
If he has a flaw, from the perspective of someone trying to bring the rivalry to life, it is that he exudes calm. He rarely refers to Lincecum or their games directly, choosing instead to litter the conversation with such rhetorical confetti as, "He's a great pitcher, just electric." He won't say anything remotely flammable.
"The thought process is no different no matter who you face," Kershaw says. "You're trying to be good regardless, and the opponent doesn't matter. I respect who [Lincecum] is as a pitcher, but it doesn't really change anything about me."
Kershaw's focus is so tight that he refused to drift from his off-season throwing regimen, even when he and his wife visited the orphanage site in
Zambia. He and Ellen's brother, John, who was along for the trip, conducted long-toss sessions on soccer fields. "The people there don't know what baseball is," Kershaw says, "but I'm sure they find it humorous."
Lincecum vs. Kershaw, Game 4
Sept. 20, Dodger Stadium
The Giants came in with an eight-game winning streak. The late push put them within range of a miracle finish to catch the fading Braves or the surging Cardinals for the NL wild-card spot. The one thing they couldn't do was lose. Then came Kershaw, in his second-to-last start of the season, sitting at 19–5 and knowing that a 20-win season would all but guarantee the Cy Young.
Lincecum: It got to be a little joke. I looked at the lineup card and said: Okay, who do I got today? Oh, Kershaw? Again? That's just great. Then I went out and gave up two runs in the first two innings. It was like, "F---, that's exactly what we didn't need."
Righetti: If you could have heard me in the dugout, swearing and muttering, you'd know how frustrating it was. Once when it was Timmy's turn to hit that inning, I said, "Find a way to do something." He said: "I know, but what am I going to do? I can't hit that guy either." I said: "I don't know -- half a swing, maybe you get a cheapie. Just do something."
Lincecum: I guess I needed to hit a home run. Wasn't going to happen.
Righetti: Their guy just didn't give up any runs. It was crazy.
Lincecum: It never felt like a close game.
Dodgers 2, Giants 1
Kershaw 7.1IP 6H 1R 1ER 2BB 6K
Lincecum 7IP 8H 2R 2ER 3BB 5K
On the front side of a new season, you can't help wondering whether Bochy's wish will come true. Will we remember the four matchups of 2011, or will they be superseded by the ones we've yet to witness? Will Lincecum-Kershaw be a topic of conversation in 2062?
"I know two guys who will remember it," Krukow says. "When they're finished playing, they'll meet by chance somewhere, maybe a bar in Lahaina, and they'll sit down and talk. They'll remember every ... single ... pitch."
To this point the rivalry is one-sided, so Lincecum needs a few wins (which means a few runs). He may get his chance on May 8 if the stars align -- if both play their season openers and stick to the five-game rotation. But as Posey will tell you, the preamble has been written. They owe the earnest young lefty. They believe the bill is past due, an accounting is in order. Everybody involved swears it's nothing personal, but there's no denying it's professional. Extremely professional.