Commentary

Kershaw doesn't leave Dodgers short

Pitching on three days' rest, Dodgers ace made good on Don Mattingly's gamble

Updated: October 8, 2013, 9:44 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Don Mattingly sat behind a microphone, draped in a blue towel, his black hair matted down with sparkling wine. Somebody asked him what he learned about Clayton Kershaw Monday night. A few words into his answer, Mattingly's words began to catch in his throat, his eyes starting to water up.

The emotion reflected Mattingly's paternal feelings for his ace left-hander, and a relationship that goes back more than six years, to the days when Kershaw roomed with Mattingly's son, Preston, in the Class A Midwest League.

"He's just a different cat, you know?" Mattingly said. "I'm sure there have been guys out there like him throughout the years, but there are not many."

Mattingly would have also been feeling strong emotions -- and perhaps even shedding some tears -- had Kershaw not pitched six stalwart innings in his first career start on three days' rest and had Juan Uribe not hit a late two-run home run -- the two events that launched the Dodgers into the National League Championship Series, four wins shy of their first World Series appearance in 25 years.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Harry How/Getty ImagesIn navigating six stout innings on three days' rest, Clayton Kershaw backed up his manager's bet and enabled a Game 4 Dodgers closeout.
Mattingly and his staff took a gamble rushing Kershaw into action rather than taking their chances with Ricky Nolasco and having Kershaw standing by fully rested for Game 5. And the move worked. It just took a while -- two excruciating innings past the point at which Mattingly, trying to protect Kershaw's diamond mine of a left arm, pulled him from the game after 91 pitches.

So, yeah, there was a little relief swishing around in that emotional stew for Mattingly, too.

"It's a good feeling that you end up winning, because I don't have to answer those questions," Mattingly said. "But, honestly, it's what you do. You've got to do the right thing for Clayton. You try to do the best thing for your ballclub … Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn't work, and, sometimes, it doesn't work and it still works."

One of the people sitting among the 54,437 other blue-clad fans at Dodger Stadium on a pleasant Monday evening -- his shock of white hair perfectly groomed -- probably considered Kershaw's heroics pedestrian. Sandy Koufax, after all, pitched a three-hit shutout in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series on two days' rest. Back then, three days' rest wasn't a vacation; it was standard down time.

"This is not about ancient history. This is about tonight and Clayton Kershaw," Koufax said.

Since he was 21, Kershaw has been compared to Koufax. That's like a young British playwright being compared to William Shakespeare. It's not exactly the comp you want to drop on somebody before they've written their first hit. How do you live up to that, particularly in the month it counts, October? Kershaw's not done, and, largely thanks to him, neither are the Dodgers.

One of the most important things that came out of Monday's game was the Dodgers learned Kershaw can do it. Until you try, you never really know. The postseason is littered with good pitchers who fell to pieces pitching on short rest.

"This is the postseason, and I don't want to take it for granted. I might not ever get to do this again," Kershaw said. "If Donny wanted me to pitch again tomorrow, I would."

That's one way to one-up Koufax, but, of course, that's not going to happen, because the Dodgers won't play again until Friday night against an opponent to be determined Wednesday night in St. Louis. And Kershaw won't be pitching that game, by the way. Zack Greinke will, and both he and Kershaw will be well-rested, hoping to press the Dodgers' advantage -- starting pitching -- as far as it will go.

While the Dodgers won't say it, one of the reasons they likely decided to bring Kershaw back early was that many of their key players -- Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig, Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford among them -- are dealing with painful injuries. Two extra days of rest in October can make the difference between winning a ring and embarrassing yourself in front of a national TV audience.

The truth is, nobody who has been around Kershaw much was particularly surprised with what he did Monday, which, by the way, was more impressive than the line score indicated. Kershaw pitched around some sloppy play by his infielders. Otherwise, he might have carried the ball into the seventh or eighth inning and put it on a tee for the Dodgers' late-inning relievers.

Mattingly said he thought Kershaw was going to "deal" Monday, which certainly must have made his decision a little easier. Kershaw's teammates, who have gotten used to him living up to unfair expectations, expected the same.

"I wouldn't put anything past that guy," Ethier said. "He's an unbelievable competitor, and he wanted this game more than anyone."

Kershaw's time on the field Monday ended where it started -- in center field. About 40 minutes before the game, he was taking a little crow hop and heaving the ball from the edge of the warning track near the 395-feet sign to catcher A.J. Ellis, who was tucked into the left-field corner. Kershaw's throws, part of his long-tossing routine before his starts, seldom soared much higher than the height of the wall. By contrast, Ellis's throws looked like rainbows.

Four hours later, Kershaw took a half-lap around the warning track, with his NLDS cap tugged over his long mop of wet hair, high-fiving fans along the way. They seemed to appreciate what he had done.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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