Jun 26

Kershaw C: Kersh of the Titans

Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw

Can it really be 100 starts since it all began for Clayton Kershaw, our 20-year-old baby-faced rookie? How do you squeeze 100 starts in what feels like such a short time?

Here are the career numbers:
590 2/3 innings, 735 baserunners (470 hits, 256 walks, nine hit batters), 614 strikeouts, 3.14 ERA.

Opponents: .219 batting average, .304 on-base percentage, .322 slugging percentage, .626 OPS.

And, to celebrate the ongoing lamest feature in Dodger Thoughts history, here’s the list of all the Kershaw films made to date:

Kershaw XCIX: Kershawl the President’s Men
Kershaw XCVIII: Kershawl That Heaven Will Allow
Kershaw XCVII: Kershawpular Mechanics
Kershaw XCVI: Kershawft
Kershaw XCV: Kershawnal Best
Kershaw XCIV: Kershawlotte’s Web
Kershaw XCIII: Kershawl we are saying, is give peace a chance
Kershaw XCII: Kersh-sh-sh-sh-sh changes
Kershaw XCI: Kershawppy Mother’s Day
Kershaw XC: (vacant)
Kershaw LXXXIX: Kershawlistic medicine
Kershaw LXXXVIII: Kershawtel California
Kershaw LXXXVII: Kershawrlan County, U.S.A.
Kershaw LXXXVI: Kershawlandaise sauce
Kershaw LXXXV: Kershawberry muffin
Kershaw LXXXIV: Kershopening day game chat
Kershaw LXXXIII: Kershawteau Marmont
Kershaw LXXXII: Kershawpscotch
Kershaw LXXXI: Kershawctupus
Kershaw LXXX: Kershawt wheels
Kershaw LXXIX: Kershawquaman
Kershaw LXXVIII: (vacant)
Kershaw LXXVII: Kershaw, snap!
Kershaw LXXVI: Kershawnna Karenina
Kershaw LXXV: Kershawne on you crazy diamond
Kershaw LXXIV: Kershasta McNasty
Kershaw LXXIII: Kershawl of Me
Kershaw LXXII: Kershawmpty Dumpty
Kershaw LXXI: Kershawt and a beer
Kershaw LXX: Kershawt Tub Time Machine
Kershaw LXIX: Kershallow Grave
Kershaw LXVIII: Kershawk jock
Kershaw LXVII: O Kershaw, Curtain, Lights
Kershaw LXVI: Kershawpoly
Kershaw LXV: Kershawnee, Indiana
Kershaw LXIV: Kershaw Knight Pulliam
Kershaw LXIII: Kershawt My Dad Says
Kershaw LXII: Kershawrmor All
Kershaw LXI: Kershawrms and the Man
Kershaw LX: Kershawlsbury Hill
Kershaw LIX: Kershaws Clay
Kershaw LVIII: Kershawmmie dearest
Kershaw LVII: Kershawww, freak out!
Kershaw LVI: (vacant)
Kershaw LV: Kershawk-infested waters
Kershaw LIV: Kershaw the Frog
Kershaw LIII: Kershawme Opener
Kershaw LII: There’s no business like Kershaw business
Kershaw LI: (vacant)
Kershaw L: Kershawlk to the animals
Kershaw XLIX: Kershaws
Kershaw XLVIII: Kershome run derby
Kershaw XLVII: Kershawpple Dumpling Gang
Kershaw XLVI: Kershawlly olly oxen free
Kershaw XLV: Kershawlly Lolly Lolly get your adverbs here
Kershaw XLIV: Kershawvinist pigs!
Kershaw XLIII: Kershawk full o’ nuts
Kershaw XLII: (vacant)
Kershaw XLI: Kershawk treatment
Kershaw XL: Drive Kershow, putt for dough
Kershaw XXXIX: Kershow Gabba Gabba
Kershaw XXXVIII: Kershawrky’s Machine
Kershaw XXXVII: Kershawt through the heart
Kershaw XXXVI: Kershawp ’til you drop
Kershaw XXXV: Kershawppy Father’s Night
Kershaw XXXIV: Kershalways be closing
Kershaw XXXIII: Kershawt Heard ‘Round the World
Kershaw XXXII: Kershawva Nagila
Kershaw XXXI: Kershawt people got no reason
Kershaw XXX: Kershawffice Space
Kershaw XXIX: Kershawrk Attack
Kershaw XXVIII: Kershampoo
Kershaw XXVII: Kershantilly Lace
Kershaw XXVI: Kershey’s Kisses
Kershaw XXV: Kershawt in the Dark
Kershaw XXIV: Kershawffle off to Buffalo
Kershaw XXIII: Kersham-Wow
Kershaw XXII: (Adenhart)
Kershaw XXI: Kershama Lama Ding Dong
Kershaw XX: Kershane, Come Back Kershane
Kershaw XIX: Kershawrp Dressed Man
Kershaw XVIII: Kershawnterbury Tales
Kershaw XVII: Kershawt in the Dark
Kershaw XVI: Kershawnce To Dream
Kershaw XV: Kershawn of the Dead
Kershaw XIV: Kershawl We Dance?
Kershaw XIII: Kershawp Around the Corner
Kershaw XII: Kerdyshawck
Kershaw XI: Manny I
Kershaw X: Kershaq Fu
Kershaw IX: Kershawk the Monkey
Kershaw VIII: Kershaw Me the Money
Kershaw VII: Kershaw Na Na Na, Sha Na Na Na Na Na
Kershaw VI: Kershaw’s, Foiled Again?
Kershaw V: (vacant)
Kershaw IV: Kershawshank Redemption
Kershaw III: Kershawker
Kershaw II: The Kershawing
Kershaw: (vacant)

Jun 23

A new hope: Kemp joins Kershaw as light savior


Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireMatt Kemp has been the most valuable offensive player in the NL in 2011, according to Fangraphs.

They are the two shining lights of the Los Angeles Dodgers, two high beams coming down the highway in blinding glory, belying the sputtering engine behind them.

Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw are the redemptive forces in a sinful year for the Dodgers. With respect to the speedy pleasures of Dee Gordon, the early season build of Andre Ethier’s hitting streak or the fleeting moments of glory for the other boys in white and blue (Hey, remember that time Jerry Sands doubled in his first at-bat? That was awesome), Kemp and Kershaw have been the sustaining forces for the masses.

With Kershaw, we expected no less. Ascending with blinding speed, the lefty has scarcely had his destiny challenged since he made his minor-league debut at age 18, outside some concern about his control that was easily pegged to his youth. Precocious in talent and work ethic, thoroughly grounded and determined, Kershaw just keeps blossoming, with 117 strikeouts and only 114 baserunners allowed in 107 1/3 innings this season. His ERA is at 3.01, with 12 of the 36 runs he has allowed in 2011 coming in twin pairs of sixth and seventh innings on in Cincinnati and Colorado — two blips preventing his ERA from settling in the low 2s.

Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireClayton Kershaw leads the major leagues in strikeouts per nine innings.

Every start, Kershaw brings no-hit stuff, and twice in the past month he has nearly brought it home, before settling for two-hit shutouts. Always poised on the mound, Kershaw is the rare beacon of confidence in a Dodger world teeming with doubt.

Rare except for Kemp, who stands in contrast as someone whose raison d’etre has repeatedly been second-guessed. No matter what he did on the field for most of 2010, the question dogged him: ballplayer or imposter?

Kemp picked up the Bison nickname way back in his first week as a Dodger, though perhaps Baby Bison might have been more appropriate.  His obvious speed and strength immediately inspired people who nicknamed him, but anyone could also have anticipated that there would be growing pains on the prairie.

And yet, just as easy as the hurdles were to predict, so was the impatience. Let’s put this in perspective: Kemp made his major-league debut in 2006. For four seasons, his improvement was measurable. Even his 2010 season launched like a rocket with seven home runs in his first 14 games.

Whatever the reasons things went wrong for Kemp, 25 years old at the time, the widespread disgust with his performance from so many quarters outran even the Bison. Some of us look at struggling athletes and say, “This is what people go through, and the ones who are meant to conquer it will.” Others just say, “This shouldn’t happen – period.”

No one wants to rehash the whys and wherefores of last season — that’d would deck the halls with all the fun and good times of an unanesthetized root canal. The question was whether Kemp would or could do anything about it, a question that I wrote last fall was anything but simple:

… Everyone is expecting Kemp to be humble about a career that, until a few months ago, he has had every reason to take pride in. That might require more than an overnight adjustment. It might require trying harder, and then thinking you’ve got it, and then realizing you don’t, and then having to search – sincerely search – for new levels within yourself that aren’t immediately apparent.

Kemp, who has averaged more than 20 homers a year with a .285 batting average, who has had Gold Glove and Silver Slugger honors, two playoff appearances, a past income of more than $5 million and a guaranteed 2011 income of nearly $7 million, who came back and improved after disappointing finishes to his 2006 and 2008 seasons, is being told that’s not enough, not nearly. He’s being told that if he doesn’t improve in 2011, he will be a great disappointment, and if there’s any question about his effort, it will be nothing less than shameful. …

If Kemp were to say to himself – and I personally don’t think for a moment he is saying this to himself – “I have money, I have love, I have a good job and I have my health, and I have this all just by being who I already am, and even though I’m no longer the best, that’s all I need,” no one would think for a moment that this was a legitimate perspective, even though outside the world of competitive sports, it most certainly is. In sports, there’s no greater sin than unrealized potential. And yet in life, in real life, letting some of your potential go at a certain point can actually be a gift to yourself and your loved ones. …

As much as I wanted Kemp to rebound, I would have understood on a hits-close-to-home level if he hadn’t. But we needn’t have wondered.

Smaller guys like Jamey Carroll and Aaron Miles are typically called grinders, but Matt Kemp is nothing if not grinding. You can see it in the way he runs, the way he hits, even the way he holds himself back when he needs to. His spikes pulverize the dirt like engine pistons, his turbine power could light up 200,000 homes.

What’s better than a guy who makes you drop everything you’re doing to see what he’ll do next — and who constantly rewards you for the attention? That is Matt Kemp. His nearly homer-a-day performance on the Dodgers’ early June roadtrip was like a layer of Thompson’s Water Seal preventing any viewers from leaking away during his at-bats. The man came up to pinch-hit with a bad hamstring in the ninth inning and the Dodgers trailing 6-0 in Colorado — and you had to watch. And he delivered. His 20 homers and 21 steals in only 76 games — just extraordinary.

The respect and fear he has generated has only added to his momentum — intentional walks in the first inning, getting pitched around even if he’s the tying or winning run. To his credit, Kemp has made the most of this, reining in his swing when appropriate. I don’t suppose people buy tickets just to see maturity on display, but Kemp has put on a nightly revue.

It almost defies belief that the Dodgers might have their worst ballclub in two decades — yet could legitimately end up with the National League Most Valuable Player and Cy Young Awards. In some ways similar, in some ways so different, Kershaw and Kemp have kept the lights on at Dodger Stadium, guiding us through the fog.

Jun 20

Kershaw outdoes himself again, 4-0


Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw

That blankety-blank Clayton Kershaw – and I mean that in a good way.

As in, that Clayton Kershaw blankety-blanked the Detroit Tigers tonight, 4-0, for his second two-hit shutout in the past three weeks and, in his 99th career start, the top performance of his career.

On May 29, Kershaw struck out 10 in his 116-pitch two-hitter of Florida. Tonight, Kershaw struck out 11 members of one of the better offenses in baseball – including all three batters in the ninth inning – to complete his 112-pitch outing. The 23-year-old leads the majors in strikeouts with 117.

Kershaw faced only 29 batters in the game – with a tip of the cap to Dioner Navarro’s perfect pickoff of Ryan Raburn at third base in the third inning – matching Sandy Koufax in Game 5 of the 1965 World Series for the quickest shutout and quickest victory over an American League team in Dodger history, regular season and postseason.

Kershaw also gave himself some breathing room in the bottom of the eighth with a two-out, two-run single to double the Dodger lead. Combined with his third-inning walk, Kershaw raised his 2011 on-base percentage to .333 – better than opponents are doing against him this year.

Since the bumpy blown leads of Cincinnati and Colorado, Kershaw has pitched 16 innings and allowed one run on six hits and three walks while striking out 15. And the Dodgers have thrown back-to-back shutouts, reducing their deficit in the National League West to seven games,

The game-winning RBI went to Juan Uribe, batting second tonight ahead of Andre Ethier as manager Don Mattingly tries to jump-start his season. Uribe didn’t see many fastballs in his first trip to the plate but belted a 3-2 changeup from Brad Penny for his fourth homer of the year and first in more than 100 at-bats since April 29.

Update: The following is from ESPN Stats and Information:

How Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw dominated the Tigers:
- Kershaw went to his slider as his out pitch. He threw 21 sliders for the game, 16 of which came with two strikes. All 12 outs he got on his slider came with two strikes, including a career-best 10 strikeouts (all swinging).
- Tigers hitters couldn’t lay off his slider. They swung at 17 of the 21 (81 pct) he threw, including 14 of 16 (87.5 pct) with two strikes. No Kershaw opponent has swung more often at his slider in his career (min 3 sliders).
- Kershaw had good command of his slider, keeping it primarily down in the zone. He threw 10 sliders down in the zone, all with two strikes. Tigers hitters swung at eight of them and missed on seven.

Clayton Kershaw’s Slider
Monday vs Tigers

Pitches 21
Swings 17
Misses 11<<
Hits 0
>>10 strikeouts (career high)

From Elias:
Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw two-hit the Tigers in a 4-0 win, posting his third career shutout. Kershaw finished his shutout in style by striking out the side in the 9th. According to Elias, the last Dodgers starter to finish a shutout by striking out the side in the 9th was Sandy Koufax in his perfect game on Sept. 9, 1965 against the Cubs.

Kershaw’s performance Monday tied him for the second-highest game score this season.

Highest Game Score – 2011 Season
June 14 Justin Verlander 94
Monday Clayton Kershaw 93<<
May 22 James Shields 93
May 29 Clayton Kershaw 92
Apr. 14 Cliff Lee 92
>>Kershaw: career best

It also ties for the fifth-highest ever in interleague play (behind a perfecto, a no-no, and a pair of 1-hitters).

Highest Game Score, interleague play (all-time)
David Cone, NYY 07/18/99 vs MTL 97 (PG)
Justin Verlander, DET 06/12/07 vs MIL 95 (NH)
Chris Carpenter, STL 06/14/05 at TOR 94
Mark Mulder, OAK 07/06/01 at ARI 94
Clayton Kershaw, LAD 06/20/11 vs DET 93
James Shields, TB 05/22/11 at FLA 93
Pedro Martinez, MTL 06/14/97 vs DET 93

Jun 09

Dodgers demote Jerry Sands, bring up Trent Oeltjen


Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw

The Dodgers are going to give Jerry Sands a breather from the major leagues, replacing him on the active roster with lefty-hitting outfielder Trent Oeltjen, who had a .429 on-base percentage and .583 slugging percentage at Albuquerque. Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has details.

In addition, the Dodgers outrighted minor-leaguer Luis Vasquez from the 40-man roster to Single-A Rancho Cucamonga.

Have no fear about Sands — despite his recent slump, his initial foray into the bigs should be viewed in a positive light, providing some great moments as well as some knowledge of how he has to improve.

As for the major-league roster, I wonder if this move sets the stage for Casey Blake to play some left field, as was discussed months ago.

* * *

It’s Clayton Kershaw Day on the Internet, with several pieces on the Dodger lefty:

  • Tim Kurkjian of ESPN.com is exceedingly complimentary, noting that no 23-year-old major-league pitcher (according to the Elias Sports Bureau) had ever had as many career victories and as low a career ERA while striking out more than a batter per inning before Kershaw.  Kershaw says he benefited from his fast start.

    “The Dodgers did me a huge favor calling me up as early as they did,” Kershaw told Kurkjian. “I took my lumps, but I’m better off for it. What I’ve learned to this point has been huge for me.”

    The biggest adjustment came this year when he added a slider in part because, “I couldn’t control my curveball.” Manager Don Mattingly agreed, but added, “No one [umpires] calls the curveball [for strikes] anymore. No one swings at it. So, you can’t throw it. But his slider and changeup have become very good. When I first saw him, he could throw a fastball for a strike on the inside part of the plate to right-handed hitters. Now he can throw the ball to both sides of the plate, against right-handed and left-handed hitters. His bullpens are now art. He throws five pitches in, five away. He moves the ball around. It’s boom, boom, boom.” …

  • Dave Cameron of Fangraphs names Kershaw as a finalist for best southpaw in the National League, before going with a Phillie.
  • David Schoenfield of ESPN.com also makes the case for Kershaw as a top young lefty in MLB, before giving Tampa Bay’s David Price a slight edge.
  • According to the Dodger press notes, since making his major-league debut in May 2008, no pitcher with at least 400 innings has a lower opponents’ batting average than Kershaw (.221 batting average, 7.3 hits per nine innings).
Jun 04

Majestic Bison and the Bisonettes rescue Dodgers, 11-8


Al Behrman/APFly away, ball. Fly away.

Al Behrman/APClayton Kershaw struck out nine of the first 15 batters he faced, but then the game got crazy.

Clayton Kershaw worked the Reds over for the first five innings today like Ali worked the ring. The fifth inning in particular was just athletic poetry, Kershaw striking out the side, and I was in thrall.

Leading 1-0, Kershaw had faced the minimum number of batters in taking a one-hitter heading into the sixth inning, and then things just went haywire. Ramon Hernandez singled, and two outs later, Drew Stubbs walked. Brandon Phillips then fisted a 1-1 pitch to right field, just over the head of second baseman Aaron Miles, a them’s-the-breaks hit to tie the game.

And then Joey Votto blasted a three-run home run.

And before he was out of the game in the seventh, Kershaw had given up six runs, and Mike MacDougal had allowed another, and I was bereft.

So of course, you know what happened next. No, not that. No, not that either. No, keep going down the list.

First, Matt Kemp went bananas. Bananas, I say! A solo homer and a grand slam in back-to-back innings to tie the game at 7.

The slam followed an out-of-the-blue rally started with one out in the top of the eighth on a pinch-hit single by Tony Gwynn, Jr., his first hit to the outfield in a full month. Jamey Carroll and Aaron Miles followed with singles to make the score 7-3, and then Andre Ethier (who threw a runner out at home minutes before) drew a walk off Reds lefty reliever Bill Bray. The Bison came up, and on a 1-0 pitch from Logan Ondrusek, who had allowed two homers in 32 innings this season, sent one over the left-center-field fence to tie the game.

The home runs, Kemp’s 14th and 15th of the season, gave him more home runs than steals for the first time this year and put him on a pace for 41 homers and 38 steals this season. According to the Dodgers, he is the team’s first player to hit 15 homers in his first 59 games since Shawn Green in 2001. Green finished that season with a club-record 49.

That put the Dodgers in position for quite an event. According to Fox, the Dodgers’ last win after trailing by 5+ in the eighth inning was May 9, 1994, and Los Angeles has won only three such games since 1958. (Of course, Reds manager Dusty Baker has seen a five-run lead disappear painfully in the past.)

But there was still the matter of pushing across the winning run. Scott Elbert held off the Reds with a 1-2-3 eighth, and Matt Guerrier pitched a shutout ninth. Javy Guerra retired Scott Rolen and Jay Bruce with two on to survive the 10th.

Finally, in the 11th, the Dodgers busted through with Scrub-ball, scoring two runs on singles by … Juan Castro … Gwynn … Carroll (4 for 5) … and Miles (3 for 5, 3 RBI). Reds pitcher Carlos Fisher, the losing pitcher in Cincinnati’s 19-inning epic against the Phillies on May 25, then threw away an Ethier double-play grounder, opening the door for the Dodgers to score two more runs, Kemp getting his sixth RBI of the game on a fielder’s choice.

In only 27 of their previous 58 games had the Dodgers scored more runs than they scored in today’s 11th inning.

Guerra, who last pitched two innings May 4 in Chattanooga, was left to start the bottom of the 11th despite his hard-working 23 pitches in the 10th. (He actually walked in his first major-league plate appearance.) He gave up a leadoff single to Ryan Hanigan and one out later was replaced by Ramon Troncoso. A groundout by Paul Janish drove in a run charged to Guerra (his first since May 22), but the Dodgers were one out away.

Then, Chris Heisey singled. Then, Stubbs singled. That meant that the Reds would in fact get the tying run to the plate in Phillips, with Votto on deck and Rolen in the hole.

Strike. Ball. Strike. Ball.

Just as he did to drive in the first run against Kershaw hours before, Phillips went to right field. It looked very much like a potential hit off his bat. But this one went a little deeper, and Ethier was able to come in and catch it.

Dodgers 11, Reds 8. Wow, and whew.

May 29

Whooosh – there it is: Kershaw, Dodgers blow out Marlins


Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw

So that’s what a breeze feels like.

Sailing into a storm most of the season, the Dodgers enjoyed a day with the wind entirely at their backs, with Clayton Kershaw in near no-hit form and the offense practically an arcade, leading to an 8-0 breeze over the Marlins.

The Dodgers took two of three from Florida for their first series victory since April 22-24 in Chicago. If you’re any kind of believer – and praise be onto you if you are – this is where it starts, all the ifs and buts transforming into actual results.

Whether they can extend this one-game winning streak, matching their longest since May 13 (yes, that’s right), is of course up in the air, but if in fact it’s a blip on the losing radar, it was a blip to be savored.

Kershaw’s marquee game in my mind remains his showdown victory over Ubaldo Jimenez of Colorado 12 1/2 months ago, but as Mike Petriello of Mike Scioscia’s Tragic Illness points out, today was Kershaw’s finest statistical outing ever – a Kershawnal Best, if you will – allowing two hits and one walk while striking out 10 in his second career shutout. The second hit off Kershaw was a ball that Jay Gibbons lost in a battle with the sun and an unusually ferocious wind, which would have been exceedingly painful for fans had Omar Infante not singled softly to left in the third inning.

In any case, Kershaw, who lowered his ERA to 2.62 and now leads the major leagues with 87 strikeouts, was in complete control.

“He was hitting both sides of the plate and throwing inside on lefties, which you don’t see that much from a lefty,” Florida’s Wes Helms told The Associated Press. “Kershaw just commanded all of his pitches today, and he had above-average stuff. He knows how to bury his curveball and his slider. He’s not going to leave it over the middle of the plate. I mean, you get geared up for that heater, and his slider’s hard enough that you can’t hold up when it’s in the dirt.”

It was a Hershiseresque day all around for Kershaw, who had as many hits at the plate as he allowed. The 23-year-old, who was 10 for 132 entering this season, is 6 for 25 in 2011. His two hits were only 13 percent of the Dodgers’ 15 off Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco, who was forced to stick it out for five innings after Florida blew out its bullpen Saturday. The total tied a Los Angeles record for the most off a single starting pitcher (Mario Soto of Cincinnati was the last victim, in 1982).

Gibbons, Andre Ethier and Rafael Furcal each had three, including Furcal’s first homer of the year, a two-run shot to the right-field bullpen that gave the Dodgers their initial lead after Kershaw led off the bottom of the third with a single. Ethier reached base in all five plate appearances, while Dioner Navarro went 2 for 4 to complete a 7-for-18 week.

Dodger life is good today, for the second time in three days.

* * *

  • Bob Timmermann has a great essay at L.A. Observed’s Native Intelligence about a simpler time, a simpler time when all we had to do was be mad at Tom Niedenfuer and Jack Clark.
  • Zach Lee gave up six runs in one-third of an inning of his return to active duty with Great Lakes today. He allowed three hits, two walks and two hit batters, writes Hugh Bernreuter of the Saginaw News, who also had a nice piece on Ramon Martinez earlier this week.
  • Josh Lindblom officially arrived today, with Kenley Jansen going on the 15-day disabled list and Travis Schlichting being designated for assignment. Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has details. That makes five top relievers on the Dodger disabled list: Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo, Vicente Padilla, Blake Hawksworth and Jansen.
  • Gary Carter’s diagnosis is grim, but no one is giving up, writes Ian Begley for ESPNNewYork.com.
  • Stadium Journey reviews the Chattanooga Lookouts ballpark.
May 18

Back to basics: The Giants return to town

With the Giants coming back to town for their first new visit since the Bryan Stow assault, this feels like very serious business.

I think many of us have been preoccupied over the past few weeks with the number of empty seats at Dodger Stadium, but more important is that every person attending, no matter how many, can root for their favorite team or players without feeling threatened.

* * *

For all the caterwauling about the Dodger offense, Los Angeles is averaging 3.465 runs per game, San Francisco 3.463. Dominance!

Some notes on Clayton Kershaw, courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau:

1) Kershaw’s career ERA against the Giants is 1.07. That’s the lowest ERA against the Giants by any of the 755 pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings against the Giants over the last 100 seasons. (The National League began recording earned runs back in 1912.)

2) Kershaw has thrown 23 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings against the Giants, the longest streak by a Dodgers pitcher against the Giants since Don Sutton shut them out for 31 straight innings (1977-78).

May 09

Kershaw leaves us breathless …


Kathy Willens/APHold on to your hats!

If you didn’t see Sunday’s 4-2 Dodger victory over the Mets, you missed Clayton Kershaw’s lump-in-your-throat slide into second base on a passed ball by Ronny Paulino in the third inning. He roared into the bag like a kid hitting the bottom of the slide at Raging Waters.

The play ended up being pivotal toward the Dodgers’ first run, but the best part about it was that Kershaw got up.

Kershaw was a bit of a wild ride on the mound as well, walking two of the first three men he faced and delivering only one perfect inning out of seven, but he was effective at keeping the Mets from converting their opportunities. He ended up allowing one run on six hits and three walks over 6 2/3 innings while striking out eight, lowering his season ERA to 3.12. For the game, New York went 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position.

Apr 11

Dodgers 6, Giants 1: Matt Kemp is the center of the universe



Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesMatt Kemp and his helmet exult after stealing second base despite a pickoff.

Matt Kemp steals second base despite picking picked off first.

Matt Kemp scores from second on a James Loney line drive off the glove of the second baseman.

Matt Kemp walks for a second time after being down in the count 0-2.

Matt Kemp lines an RBI single that turns left fielder Pat Burrell into a jumping bean, with the ball skipping past him.

Matt Kemp is thrown out at third.

That last one was just to remind us that as long as you’re pushing for Kemp to be aggressive, you’re going to pay the price now and then. Nonetheless, 2011 has returned that Matt Kemp that everyone loves, and his role in the Dodgers’ 6-1 victory Monday over San Francisco was the latest example.

You’ve heard of the eye in the middle of the hurricane? Matt Kemp is the hurricane that surrounds the eye.

Kemp, who went 1 for 2 with two walks, is boasting a .537 on-base percentage and .647 slugging percentage, not to mention a 1.000 stealing percentage on seven tries.

The stolen base was remarkable because the Giants did so much right and so little wrong. San Francisco pitcher Madison Bumgarner threw to first base as Kemp broke for second. First baseman Brandon Belt immediately turned and threw down to short. Miguel Tejada got the ball and put down the tag. And Kemp was just plain ol’ safe.

So Kemp is back to outrunning his occasional mistake rather than eliminating them entirely, but I think we’ll take that trade, especially with the way he looks at the plate. His seventh-inning strikeout was only his fourth in 41 plate appearances this season.

Kemp and Clayton Kershaw fought for the spotlight on Opening Day: Kershaw shone brightest then, and he just as easily could have tonight. He wasn’t untouchable, allowing six hits and two walks in 6 2/3 innings, but he always had the right pitch when he needed it. Only one San Francisco baserunner made it past second base – Aubrey Huff with two out in the bottom of the fourth inning – at which point Kershaw annihilated Belt with three fastballs for strikes, the last two swinging.

Kershaw, whose seven strikeouts gave him 24 in 19 2/3 innings this season, faced 11 batters with runners on base tonight. Three of them hit the ball out of the infield: two singles, one flyout. He lowered his 2011 ERA to 1.37 and has now pitched 23 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings against the Giants. (His 117 pitches tonight were one shy of his career high.)

A third hero tonight was second baseman Jamey Carroll, who figures to play more shortstop soon with Rafael Furcal injuring his thumb while stealing third base in the Dodgers’ four-run fifth inning and leaving the game an inning later. Carroll went 3 for 5, raising his on-base percentage for the season to .452. Andre Ethier’s two hits put him at .442, while Rod Barajas hit what at the start of the fifth inning seemed a huge home run, giving the Dodgers a 2-0 lead.

And the slumping Uribe even contributed, going 1 for 4 but also making two nice defensive plays to support Dodger reliever Matt Guerrier in the eighth inning. Mike MacDougal gave up a homer to Burrell in the ninth – Burrell’s third blast in five games against the Dodgers this year.

Colorado rallied for a 7-6 victory against the Mets, so the Dodgers remain in second place, 1 1/2 games back.

* * *

One might say it’s a bit nervy, but then again, what hasn’t been nervy in the McCourt divorce saga? The law firm that drafted the disputed agreement at the center of the court battle between Frank and Jamie McCourt is suing Frank, “asking a Massachusetts court to declare that the firm met its obligations and caused him no loss when it drafted a marital property agreement with his ex-wife.”

As Josh Fisher of Dodger Divorce and Bill Shaikin of the Times note, there’s more to it than that. Shaikin:

… Bingham McCutchen, the Boston-based firm responsible for the since-invalidated agreement that would have granted McCourt sole ownership of the Dodgers, essentially asked a Massachusetts court to deprive McCourt of the chance to sue the firm for malpractice should he lose control of the team.

“Any injury, loss or expense he has sustained or will sustain were caused not by Bingham’s conduct, but by his own widely publicized financial problems, huge withdrawals of cash from the Dodgers, and strained relations with Major League Baseball,” the suit alleges. “None of this is attributable to Bingham’s work.”

The suit also claims McCourt owes Bingham “hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid legal fees.” …

… In a statement, McCourt spokesman Steve Sugerman blamed Bingham for preparing an agreement that did not stand up in court.

“Mr. McCourt is disappointed that the Bingham firm is unwilling to accept responsibility for its actions and is instead now trying to defend conduct that is indefensible,” the statement read. …

Apr 01

Impact of banners flies south


ESPN’s Dan Shulman, Orel Hershiser and Bobby Valentine recap the Dodgers’ win over the Giants. Note in the video that Matt Kemp is already standing on third base in the sixth inning when Buster Posey’s throw is just coming into the picture.

A final thought about airplanes flying banners. When I see them high above the Pacific Ocean at the beach, advertising this or that, they pretty much have no impact on me.  It’s hard for me to believe it was any different with the banners (as pictured on Vin Scully Is My Homeboy) flew over Dodger Stadium on Thursday.

Elsewhere …

  • Dave Cameron of Fangraphs is pretty much in awe of Clayton Kershaw at this point. Colleague Dave Allen has more on Kershaw’s hard slider.
  • Dodger fans offer Frank McCourt advice, via Molly Knight of ESPN the Magazine.
  • Here’s one more installment of the LADodgerTalk interview series with Logan White. Lots of Rubby De La Rosa discussion.
  • Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post writes about Ron Mahay, whose release by the Dodgers might mark the last we see of replacement players from the 1994-95 strike.
  • Eric Nusbaum’s profile on former Dodger talkcaster Ken Levine is in the Seattle Weekly.
  • After 1,759 career hits, Randy Winn retired, bucking some expectations by never playing for Ned Colletti in Los Angeles.
  • How Justine Siegel almost threw batting practice for the Dodgers last month. Maybe it will still work out at some point.
  • Greg Simons of the Hardball Times takes a turn on the annual “Five questions” feature on the Dodgers.
Mar 29

Dodgers and Giants tidbits and tattles

Some Dodger-Giant notes from ESPN Stats and Info:

  • Just 12 days after turning 23, Clayton Kershaw will be the fifth-youngest opening day starter for the Dodgers since moving to Los Angeles in 1958. He’s the youngest since Fernando Valenzuela in 1983. He’s also the first lefty since Valenzuela in 1988. Kershaw will be the Dodgers’ fifth different opening day starter in the past five years. It’s the first time in the last 90 years that the franchise has had five unique opening day starters in five seasons.

    Youngest Opening Day Starter
    Los Angeles Dodgers History (Yrs-Days)

    1981 Fernando Valenzuela      20-159
    1958 Don Drysdale             21-266
    1983 Fernando Valenzuela      22-155
    1959 Don Drysdale             22-262
    2011 Clayton Kershaw          23-12

  • Most Strikeouts Before 23rd Birthday, Dodgers History
    Fernando Valenzuela     584
    Clayton Kershaw         497
    Don Drysdale            488
    Ralph Branca            397
    Don Sutton              378
  • Kershaw’s 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings is the second-highest before turning 23 since 1900 (min. 400 IP):

    Sam McDowell      9.6         1961-65
    Clayton Kershaw   9.3         2008-10
    Dwight Gooden     8.7         1984-87
    Dave Boswell      8.4         1964-67
    Vida Blue         8.1         1969-72

  • Since 1900, no one has more strikeouts through his first four seasons than Tim Lincecum.

    Tim Lincecum      907   2007-10
    Dwight Gooden     892   1984-87
    Hideo Nomo        870   1995-98
    Tom Seaver        866   1967-70
    Bert Blyleven     845   1970-73

  • Among the Giants’ current rotation, Lincecum actually had the second-highest ERA last season. Much of that was due to an August in which he went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA. Some notes on that month:

    1) According to Elias, Lincecum became the first Giants pitcher to go at least 0-5 with an ERA of 7.80 or higher since Bud Black (0-6, 8.01 ERA) in September 1992.
    2) Opponents hit .388 with runners on base off Lincecum in August.
    3) Right-handed batters hit .362 in August against Lincecum. For the rest of the season, they hit just .210.
    4) When you eliminate August, Lincecum was 16-5 with a 2.84 ERA in 2010.

  • According to Inside Edge, the velocity on Lincecum’s fastball has declined each of the past three seasons:

    2008  94.1 mph
    2009  92.6 mph
    2010  91.2 mph

  • His swing-and-miss percentage also has gone down each year:

    2008  27.5%
    2009  26.2%
    2010  25.7%

  • The Giants are looking to be just the fourth NL team to repeat as World Series champs, and the first since the 1975-76 Reds.
  • The team finished with a 1.78 ERA in September, the fifth-lowest in a calendar month in the live ball era (since 1930). Opponents hit just .182 in September, the lowest since the Indians held opponents to a .174 average in May 1968.

    Lowest ERA in Calendar Month
    Live Ball Era (Since 1920)

    Indians      1.42         May 1968
    Dodgers      1.59         Sept. 1965
    Dodgers      1.71         May 1920
    Yankees      1.76         Sept. 1952
    Giants       1.78         Sept. 2010

  • Don Mattingly makes his managerial debut. According to Elias, only four people have won an MVP and managed a team to a World Series title: Joe Torre, Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Lou Boudreau. However, the latter three did so as player-managers.
  • Since 2008, Kershaw and Lincecum rank first and second in opponent batting average:

    Clayton Kershaw   .221
    Tim Lincecum      .223
    Jonathan Sanchez  .226
    Ubaldo Jimenez    .227
    Felix Hernandez   .232

  • This will be the 10th time since 1958 that these teams have met on Opening Day. The Giants have won six of the previous nine.
  • Though he had a reputation for overworking relievers, Joe Torre’s Dodgers were not generally among the top teams in using a pitcher on zero days rest.

    Dodgers relief appearances on zero days’ rest (NL rank)
    2010  66    (14th)
    2009  79    (6th)
    2008  69    (13th)

  • James Loney has 268 RBI over the past three seasons, but only 36 homers. Among the 43 players with 250 RBI since 2008, he has the fewest home runs.

    Name HR    RBI
    James Loney       36    268
    Joe Mauer         46    256
    Jhonny Peralta    49    253
    Bobby Abreu       55    281

  • Among current NL players, Loney has the third-highest career batting average with runners in scoring position (min. 500 PA):

    Albert Pujols     .345
    Todd Helton       .335
    James Loney       .326
    Freddy Sanchez    .320

Mar 13

Face it: injury-prone players are, in fact, injury-prone

Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesFinally, Matt Kemp masters the art of flying. All he had to do was listen to his coaches.

Royals 19, Dodgers 7

Giants 8, Dodgers 7

Casey Blake’s back tightness, though not considered major at this time, underscores the fact that you can’t keep older, injury-prone players like Blake and Rafael Furcal healthy just by keeping them rested. Blake has not been overexerting himself by any definition. These guys are just going to get hurt no matter what they do, and I see an argument once the season starts for not worrying about rest and getting all the production you can out of them until that next injury comes.

In any case, Tony Jackson has a piece at ESPNLosAngeles.com noting how much Juan Uribe will probably play at shortstop and third base this year.

Highlights:

  • Tony Gwynn Jr. went 3 for 3 against the Giants and stole his sixth base in as many tries.
  • Andre Ethier went 2 for 4 with a bases-loaded triple.
  • Trent Oeltjen went 2 for 2  vs. the Royals and hit a three-run homer off Denny Duffy.
  • Juan Uribe went 2 for 3 with a double.
  • Travis Schlichting, Jon Huber and prospect Allen Webster had shutout relief performances.
  • Trayvon Robinson tripled of Guillermo Mota.
  • The Dodger defense was charged with no errors in either game.

Lowlights:

  • Ted Lilly got blasted, ultimately getting charged with six runs in 2 2/3 innings against the Royals. “I wasn’t locating,” Lilly told The Associated Press. I missed quite a bit down in the dirt with my fastball. They just weren’t cleanly thrown balls.”
  • Ron Mahay is doing all he can to give away his roster spot, allowing his third home run in four short appearances and surrendering four hits, four runs and a walk in two-thirds of an inning.
  • Ramon Troncoso also got knocked around: five outs, six baserunners, four runs.
  • Tim Redding surrendered four runs in four innings against the Giants.
  • Roman Colon gave up four San Francisco singles in the bottom of the ninth as the Dodgers gave up a 7-6 lead.

Sidelights:

  • Clayton Kershaw tells Ken Gurnick of MLB.com not to worry about the split fingernail on the middle finger of his pitching hand because he gets them “all the time.” Gee, now I feel much better.
  • In the same notebook, Gurnick notes that Hong-Chih Kuo is feeling more confident about his developing changeup that could go with his fastball and slider.
  • John Ely, we’re now told, resisted listening to Dodger coaches who tried to help him during his second-half collapse last season, writes Jim Peltz of the Times.
  • Major League Baseball’s new official historian, John Thorn, writes an overview in the New York Times on the current state of information of the origins of baseball.

* * *

White Sox at Dodgers, 1:05 p.m.

Dodgers vs. Cubs (at Las Vegas), 1:05 p.m.

Mar 02

Treble was I ere I saw Elbert

Royals 11, Dodgers 5

Highlights:

  • Tim Redding pitched three shutout innings, giving him five for the spring with three strikeouts.
  • James Loney went 2 for 2.
  • Relievers Ramon Troncoso and Carlos Monasterios pitched shutout ball.
  • Jamie Hoffmann (1 for 2) is now, like Loney, 4 for 8 this spring.
  • Juan Castro hit a three-run home run.

Lowlights:

  • Scott Elbert had a nightmare outing, walking four of the five batters he faced. From Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A.:

    … With assistant GM of player development DeJon Watson in the broadcast booth with Charley Steiner, Elbert was missing the strike zone every which way. Elbert came in the game in relief of Jon Link in the fifth inning, then pitched into the sixth. Watson spoke of how Elbert got more consistent in his delivery over the winter, and was able to show two dominant pitches in the Arizona Fall League, but as those words were being spoken Elbert was missing the strike zone quite often. Elbert faced five batters, and walked four of them. He threw 21 pitches, only five of them for strikes.

    On the broadcast, one could hear Watson rooting for Elbert, the Dodgers’ 2009 minor league pitcher of the year, even as he was struggling. Watson said Elbert has great stuff that is “electric through the strike zone,” and Watson seemed to take Elbert’s outing in stride. “He’s having a tough outing today, but I think you’ll see better outings from Mr. Elbert in the future,” Watson said. Elbert better hope so; he has faced 10 batters this spring, and walked six of them. He did strike out two, and the other two batters didn’t hit the ball out of the infield, but Elbert needs to show some control before he even sniffs the 25-man roster. …

  • Jon Link was charged with three runs while getting two outs; Luis Vasquez was charged with four runs while getting three outs.
  • Aaron Miles had a double but made his second error of the spring.
  • Xavier Paul struck out twice, dropping to 1 for 8 this exhibition season.
  • Juan Castro hit a three-run home run.

Sidelights:

  • Clayton Kershaw, not yet eligible for arbitration, signed his one-year 2011 contract for the expected figure of $500,000. Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has details.  In fact, every man on the 40-man roster has now been signed for 2011, with Ronald Belisario having his contract renewed and then getting placed on the restricted list.
  • The adventures of Dee Gordon, again courtesy of Mr. Stephen:

    There was a funny moment in the fifth inning, when Mike Moustakas lofted a foul pop near the photography well adjacent to the back of the Dodger dugout. Aaron Miles was in pursuit of the ball, but Dee Gordon, who was not in the game and sitting on the steps of the dugout, tried to evade Miles by moving out of the dugout. Instead, Gordon got the way of Miles, who was unable to make the catch. Watson, who was in the booth with Charley Steiner, could be heard saying something like, “Jesus criminey” or something to that effect.

  • Remarkable: Larry Granillo researched “Peanuts” comic strips for Baseball Prospectus and found Duke Snider was mentioned twice (once with Willie Mays, once with a host of players), compared to three mentions for Mickey Mantle and Mays combined, once for Mantle alone and four times for Mays alone (including the famous spelling bee episode).
  • James Loney fares a bit below average in David Pinto’s defensive statistical rankings of first basemen from 2006-10 at Baseball Musings.
  • Ernest Reyes of Blue Heaven posted photos of the new grass being installed at Dodger Stadium.
  • Charlie Sheen meets Ron Swanson x John Wooden: The Sheen Pyramid of Greatness.
  • Juan Castro hit a three-run home run. From Ken Gurnick of MLB.com:

    When he left the game after five innings and returned to the clubhouse, this note was posted on the bulletin board:

    “Juan Castro: Please report to [Dodgers trainer] Stan Conte after the game for a mandatory steroid test.”

Update: Jackson writes about Castro and Elbert.

Feb 22

Davey Lopes gets me excited about 2011

Kirby Lee/US PresswireYou’ve come to the right place.

Tony Jackson’s Spring Training update today for ESPNLosAngeles.com focuses on Davey Lopes’ tutoring the Dodgers. Some good stuff therein:

… The 45-minute session dealt mostly with the basics. But Lopes delivered his message in a charismatic, entertaining way, with a lot of the no-nonsense language one might expect from a 65-year-old baseball lifer who believes in doing things the right way, mixed with a little bit of humor.

The audience appeared to include every non-pitcher the Dodgers have in camp, and that audience burst into laughter on a few occasions, usually when Lopes would get especially animated while demonstrating the wrong way to do something.

For those who were paying attention, though, there were a lot of lessons.

For one, Lopes isn’t a fan of the headfirst slide. He also isn’t a fan of the slide into first base.

“There are two reasons why you slide,” Lopes told the assembly. “First, to slow your body down. … Second, to avoid a tag.”

And thus, Lopes said, the only time a slide into first base is justified is to avoid a tag if the player covering has to come off the bag to take an off-line throw. …

Elsewhere …

Feb 22

Clayton Kershaw is coming at you


Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw has struck out more batters before his 23rd birthday than any other Dodgers pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela.

Clayton.

Nope, not quite.

Kershaw.

Nope, not that, either. Not yet.

He’s not a Fernando or a Sandy. Not even a Piazza or (for that brief, baggage-heavy moment) a Manny. He’s not a “Bulldog” or a “Game Over.”

He’s still a plain old guy with two plain old names, with a humble personality to match — a wolf in sheepish clothing.

If you say Clayton Kershaw is the best player on the Dodgers, you won’t necessarily get an argument, but you might get a shrug. With disappointment still dripping from the team’s 2010 season, “best player on the Dodgers” won’t earn you much more than a patronizing pat on the head, maybe an extra juice box after practice. For now, anyway.

Sometimes it happens practically overnight, the way it seemed to with Fernando Valenzuela and Mike Piazza. Other times — more often, really — it’s years in the making, as with Sandy Koufax, Orel Hershiser and Eric Gagne.

Either way, there’s an explosion within reach for Kershaw — oh, you better believe there is. He turns 23 on March 19, and soon after, he might turn Dodger Stadium back into a place where fans are racing through the crowds for their seats, the way they did for those transcendent heroes of the recent or distant past, for no other reason than to drool over his next pitch or exult in his supremacy.

If baseball is thinking outside the batter’s box, it’s reserving Blake Griffin’s Kia Optima for this year’s All-Star Game, just in case it’s needed for Kershaw to drop one of his magic breaking balls through.

If that all seems a bit fast on the superlative train, if that locomotive seems to have some particularly loco motives, well, maybe so. Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe that train will never quite arrive.

On the other hand, consider that you have a prodigy who has steadily developed, steadily improved every step of the way since he was drafted by the Dodgers 4 1/2 years ago, a pitcher who has met every small step back with two great steps forward.

“If there’s anything surprising,” Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt told Dodger Thoughts about Kershaw, “it’s at such an early age, the maturity of him and the way he goes about [his work]. He’s really a true professional … to the point that he’s really one of those gems that just strives to be the best and is not satisfied with being anything less.”

Rebound magnet

By the time he finished his first full season in the minors, in 2007, the Kershaw shorthand had been established: an uncommonly talented pitcher who would go as far as his control would allow him. His entire minor league career, which included not a day in Triple-A, lasted but 48 games and 220 1/3 innings, in which he had a 2.49 ERA and 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings. But, the walks …

In 2007, Kershaw split time between Class A and Double-A. He walked 4.6 per nine innings at the lower level and a whopping 6.2 after his promotion to Jacksonville. In 2008, Kershaw reduced his Double-A walk rate by more than half to 2.8. A pattern had begun: lose control, but rein it in and blast forward. With an ERA in the low 2s, he knocked so hard on the major league door that the Dodgers had to open it, making him, at age 20, their youngest big leaguer since Edwin Jackson.

Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers
Kershaw’s first Dodgers mugshot

In his debut, Kershaw pitched six innings of two-run ball against Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals. Then he got knocked out in the fourth inning of his second start, in New York, walking four and needing 83 pitches to get 11 outs. Over his next six starts, he had a respectable 4.03 ERA and 7.4 strikeouts per nine innings. But he also was walking nearly as many as he was striking out; he didn’t make it through six innings once.

“The bumps were command,” Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. “Obviously, he’s got a great arm and he’s a smart kid and he’s coachable, but command was the first issue — rushing his delivery and just kind of being out of whack a little bit, and that happens with guys.

“When you’re a [recent] high school player … you’ve got to wait for the mental part to reach the physical part.”

After a July 1 start, the Dodgers dropped him back to Jacksonville for a little more seasoning, but he was gone less than a month. And when he came back, he was back for good. The Dodgers stuck with him after a horrendous outing in Colorado — three innings, 13 baserunners — and he rewarded the faith with five consecutive quality starts, averaging more than six innings with a 1.45 ERA, striking out 29 and walking only nine.

Never after a setback has Kershaw failed to rebound — and improve.

“His greatest strength is just his confidence,” Honeycutt said. “He’s got great ability, but … he expects to do well. There’s no fear in him. There’s that part of him that wants the ball. He wants to go deep in the game. He wants to be one of the best.

“The other side of the coin for that strength is him learning himself better, in how he prepares his game.”

After getting his postseason feet wet in 2008 as a reliever, Kershaw was on the Opening Day roster in 2009 and went through more of the same. In his second start of the year, he struck out 13 Giants in seven innings while allowing only a single walk and a single hit, a home run by Bengie Molina. The control issues still would flare up — he walked four batters or more in 13 of his 31 starts — but his season ERA fell from 4.26 in 2008 to 2.79 in 2009, and he led the National League in fewest hits per nine innings. In Game 2 of the 2009 NL Division Series, he held St. Louis to two runs over 6 2/3 innings, keeping the Dodgers alive for their dramatic, ninth-inning comeback victory.

But Kershaw faltered in the NL Championship Series. After shutting out the Phillies for four innings in Game 1, his fifth inning consisted of three walks and three wild pitches to go with a single, a double and a home run, a five-run collapse that reinforced in the general public’s mind this was still a baby in a man’s world. Next to cries for Jonathan Broxton’s head or Manny Ramirez’s testosterone tests, nothing was heard more from the peanut gallery than “The Dodgers need an ace.”

Within a year, the Dodgers were out of the playoffs, but their ace had arrived.

Growth spurt

In his first start of 2010, Kershaw walked six batters in 4 2/3 innings. By the end of April, he had walked 22 in 29 1/3 innings. And then, on May 4 against Milwaukee, he was battered: 1 1/3 innings, seven runs. His ERA sat at 4.99, and numerous pundits suggested this might be the real Kershaw. Jon Heyman of SI.com tweeted:

kershaw may be regressing faster than billingsley. not sure. close competition. #howcanbradpennybebetterthanboth?

“There was a point [in May] last year,” Honeycutt recalled of Kershaw, “where things were not going [as] well as he would like or we would like. He actually made a few adjustments, even in his ‘pens, that we talked about. That’s really when he started coming up with a smaller breaking ball. You can call it a slider … [but] a shorter breaking ball that he could throw for strikes more consistently.

“There was more importance on commanding the lower part of the zone in his bullpens than just getting his work in.”

Kershaw’s next start was May 9 against the hottest pitcher in baseball at that moment, Colorado’s 26-year-old Ubaldo Jimenez, who had made six starts to that point and allowed four total runs. Kershaw outpitched him that day, nursing a 1-0 lead with eight shutout innings, allowing two hits and three walks while striking out nine. It was an arrival game.

Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireKershaw worked his way through 204 1/3 innings last season, striking out 212.

Other gems followed, culminating in his first major league shutout. Kershaw had come close before, but finally in San Francisco on Sept. 14 (a night the Dodgers had only one hit in nine innings), a complete-game, 1-0 victory was his. But more impressive than the individual highlights was the overall growing control. Starting with the Jimenez game, Kershaw’s walk rate for the 26 starts that finished off his 2010 season was a career-best 2.95 per nine innings. Not coincidentally, he averaged a career-best 6 2/3 innings per start in that stretch. His ERA was 2.54, and opponents had a mere .277 on-base percentage and .303 slugging percentage against him.

“I just think experience helps,” Kershaw told ESPNLA’s Tony Jackson. “The more times you go out there, the more experience you get and the more confidence you get. I don’t think it was a matter of walking a lot of guys because I had bad control. I was just trying to be too fine and not letting my stuff do its thing. Now, I’m just trying to go after hitters more.”

Said Honeycutt: “I think again it was … maturity and not just thinking you have to go 100 percent on every pitch. There’s that fine line, pitching at that level and saying, ‘I can throw at 90 percent and maybe be a little bit more under control and get the ball in an area a little bit better.’”

Gearing up for ’11

No one, least of all Kershaw, thinks he has it made. For all his improvement and excellence, Kershaw had at least one start go awry every month of last season. Preparation for taking another two steps forward in 2011 — ideally without the typical one step back — has been at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

“From [the] first time I talked to him [this winter], he had already been doing his conditioning,” Honeycutt said. “He came out to Arizona and threw a couple of ‘pens and just looked great already, just physically and arm-wise. … He’s very aware of where he wants to be and what we’re trying to work on.”

“It was mostly throwing changeups,” Kershaw said, “because that is the pitch that is the toughest for me to get a feel for, so that’s obviously something I wanted to work on. I also just worked on gaining strength and trying to get stronger.

“My high school [Highland Park] finally got an indoor facility. That was where the Packers trained before the Super Bowl. So that was awesome to have a place like that to work out in the winter time.”

Kershaw’s offseason has had some non-baseball moments of a grand scale: his marriage to longtime girlfriend Ellen in December, followed by a brief honeymoon and then a goodwill trip to Zambia in January. Any of this could have proved distracting, but Kershaw said he stayed on his offseason plan.

“I just took it with me,” he said. “I threw while I was in Africa and got my work in. I worked out pretty much the entire winter except for the four days we were on our honeymoon in Mexico.”

Gus Ruelas/APJoe Torre and umpire Adrian Johnson debate Kershaw’s ejection after hitting San Francisco’s Aaron Rowand with a pitch July 20.

With his ascendancy on the mound coupled by his growing maturity on and off the field, there’s a ray of hope that Kershaw could become a leader in a Dodgers clubhouse that many say is crying out for one, especially from its newest generation. Kershaw, Colletti and Honeycutt all tamped that notion a bit, noting a pitcher is handicapped as a clubhouse leader by how often he plays relative to the position players.

“We have a lot of guys who have more experience than I do,” Kershaw said. “For me personally, I just pitch. It’s the only thing I can do.”

“They’re in two different realms most of the time,” Colletti said of pitchers and position players. “But certainly from a pitching standpoint he can [lead]. And he’s had great support, too, from the other guys. He and [Hiroki] Kuroda have been close since Kuroda got here. [Ted] Lilly and he hit it off right away. Lilly helped in his maturation process. So it’s possible that he starts to take more of a leadership role.”

In that respect, it might turn out that Kershaw’s influence is felt less among the 25 men on the major league roster at any one time and more specifically on the minor league pitchers coming up through the farm system — a group that as a whole suffered through a rocky 2010.

“We had this prospect camp in Arizona,” Colletti said. “The major league guys know about it, but they’re not required to be there. And he showed up. We had him address the prospects — the other guys, the Withrows, the Millers, the Martins, the Eovaldis — all those young arms. He addressed them a couple of times, and it was very interesting to hear this young man speak from the perspective of prioritization and work ethic, and on bringing the mental side of the game.

“He talked about how he came here and he thought he was pretty good right away, but how much he has learned and how much he continues to learn, to become as good as he can be.”

Pitfalls and pinnacles

How good can Kershaw be?

He’s already viewed by many as the Dodgers’ best lefty since Fernando. To become the Dodgers’ best lefty since Koufax — to help boost the team above the early season predictions positioning it as an also-ran to San Francisco, to start a mania in Los Angeles — Kershaw is going to have to become even more consistently excellent, avoiding the short start in which the runs suddenly pour across in bunches.

Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireKershaw’s career high for pitches in a game is 118.

“He’s starting to get to the point where he’s keeping his pitch count decent, starting a game out where the first inning isn’t a lot of pitches,” Colletti said. “Some guys, there’s an excitement to coming out of the gate, and maybe you rush a few things here and there, maybe you don’t warm up quite as thoroughly as you do when you’re into the game.”

Honeycutt said the Dodgers, who were extremely protective of Kershaw from a pitch-count perspective when he arrived in the majors, will continue to loosen their grip in 2011, bit by bit.

“He’s definitely strong enough and has shown the ability to obviously go deeper,” Honeycutt said. “With any starting pitcher, the game itself kind of dictates what you’re gonna do, and not that we don’t want him [to go long], but you still want to be conscious the whole goal is to keep him healthy for 32-34 starts and the postseason.”

Following a tough inning, the Dodgers still plan to be conservative with Kershaw, but “when things are going smooth, you let it ride,” Honeycutt said.

“He definitely has the ability to be a 120-125-pitch-type guy, where you don’t have to worry about him coming back. He’s gotten stronger, and his recovery over five days has been very consistent,” Honeycutt said. “The main thing is be smart with him like we would anybody. … I think you feel more comfortable about letting the reins loose.”

In each of the past two seasons, a top young Dodgers pitcher suffered a prolonged, second-half setback: Chad Billingsley in 2009 and Broxton in 2010. With Kershaw still younger than either of those pitchers were then, it’s hard not to consider that, even as the best is yet to come, the worst might arrive first.

“I don’t think there’s any way for predicting,” Honeycutt said. “I still think a lot of Chad’s situation was he was a little tight there around the All-Star break, and then he had a hamstring injury right after the break, so there were some physical issues there. Obviously, Broxton being a reliever, it’s a little bit different. … It’s trying to be very conscious of where each individual is. Each is gonna hit little walls. What’s tougher I think sometimes for a young guy is that communication process of knowing exactly what’s happening.

“I think [someone who's] more of a veteran guy might have a light side in between starts. Derek Lowe, a lot of times as the season went on, would be, ‘I’m not gonna do a side this time. Just let my body recover.’ … But there’s no perfect formula.”

Heir to the throne

If it all comes together for Kershaw, if he becomes a Clayton or a Kershaw (or gets a nickname besides the one launched on Dodger Thoughts, “Minotaur,” that isn’t based in a superstitious fear of him becoming more myth than legend), the one thing no one seems to worry about is the lefty’s ability to thrive amid the attention.

The fans want someone to love. Kershaw can handle the love.

“He’s had quite a bit of attention already,” Honeycutt said. “We’ve thrown everything at him already, coming up as a 19-year-old and being a starter in the playoffs [at age 21], those are advancements that you just don’t throw on anyone unless you feel he can handle them. In my view, he’s handled things extremely well.

“He’s the type of guy that always seems to want a challenge. Some people like to shy away from a challenge, but the great ones want those head on. … He puts the team first, which has been a real plus to him from the start. It hasn’t been about him, but it’s about how [he] can help the team.”

Icon SMIThe Opening Day showdown: Lincecum versus Kershaw.

It’s not as if Kershaw is some robot that pays no mind to his surroundings. But the subtext keeps coming back: maturity and perspective.

“I wasn’t in awe, but definitely, the first time I got in here, it was different,” Kershaw said of his comfort zone in the majors. “You don’t really look at these guys as your teammates at that point. We had guys like Jeff Kent here, a lot of guys like that. But over time, the more familiar you become with something, the more comfortable you get with it.”

On March 31, Kershaw will take the mound in the first game of the 2011 major league baseball season, in front of a yearning Dodger Stadium crowd and a national television audience, against the defending World Series champions and two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum. If Kershaw loses, you can put the fanfare on hold.

But if he wins, and wins impressively, then get ready, Los Angeles.  Just get ready.