A season in the books, the maestro takes a bow

Having dispensed with the business of pitching six shutout innings in his final regular-season start, cementing as best he could what very well might be his second National League Cy Young Award in the past three seasons, taking his curtain call to acknowledge the standing ovation he received when it was clear he was done for the evening, showering, dressing and answering the last postgame interview question from the last reporter, Clayton Kershaw left the clubhouse quickly. Leaving the clubhouse quickly is something Dodgers players routinely do after Friday night home games as opposed to home games any other night of the week, when they tend to wait out the traffic leaving the parking lot. On Fridays, when there are postgame fireworks, they try to actually BEAT the traffic out of the parking lot.

And so, Kershaw walked briskly through two sets of double doors and down a long hallway leading to the elevator, a few paces ahead of a handful of my colleagues and me. Eventually Kershaw disappeared around a bend as we turned to head into a stairwell, and you suddenly heard a loud roar down the hall. It was coming from the foyer outside the Dugout Club, a foyer players have to walk through to get to the elevator that takes them up to the lot where they park their cars.

It was yet another ovation on an evening that was all about ovations for Kershaw, in a season and a career that has become increasingly about ovations — and mere days before he takes the ball in either St. Louis or Atlanta for the first game of what the Dodgers hope will be a postseason full of ovations for him and for them, as well.

Take a bow, Clayton. You are the best pitcher in all of Major League Baseball.

Some of the voters will have to think hard before putting Kershaw at the top of their ballots, and some may actually put someone else there. They will point to the low win total. But the recent trend among Cy voters has been to ignore low win totals because a pitcher’s win totals probably tell less of the story of his season than any other statistic — and let’s face it, Kershaw’s run support this year has been rather lacking.

Three years ago, Seattle’s Felix Hernandez won the A.L. award with a record of 13-12, and the reason was that it was absolutely obvious he was the best pitcher in the league. In light of that precedent, I don’t think I’m being too bold in predicting with some certainty that is there is another Cy Young in Kershaw’s immediate future. And while I don’t think he’ll win the N.L. Most Valuable Player award, he’ll show up on most of the ballots, each of which carry 10 names. And he’ll be high on some of them.

The numbers that will go into that balloting are complete now — the postseason doesn’t factor in, and the deadline for casting those ballots is Tuesday, before the start of the first wildcard game.

Besides, Kershaw didn’t go 13-12. He went 16-9. His 1.83 ERA not only is a career-best, but will lead the majors for a third consecutive season, something no pitcher has done since Greg Maddux two decades ago. He’ll lead the N.L. in strikeouts, as well, with 232, well ahead of second-place Adam Wainwright of St. Louis, the man who very likely will oppose Kershaw in the Dodgers’ playoff opener on Thursday. And to the extent that this has a bearing on the minds of voters, Kershaw also eeked out a new career high for innings pitched with 236, three more than two years ago, when he won his first Cy.

And then, there is what might be the most astonishing of all of Kershaw’s numbers.

Twenty-five.

Yes, he is 25 years old. Which means that as long as he stays healthy, it is highly unlikely he will do anything in the next five or so years other than get better.

Mostly because he is a left-handed guy who strikes out a lot of batters, is the anchor of the Dodgers rotation and has this habit of dominating hitters, Kershaw gets compared a lot to Sandy Koufax. Personally, I have always been kind of dismissive of this notion. I prefer to just think of him as Clayton Kershaw. People always want to compare this pitcher to that pitcher or whatever. It’s fun to do that sometimes, but it’s also kind of unnecessary and irrelevant. Twenty years from now, Dodgers fans aren’t going to reminisce about what a privelege it was to see that guy pitch who reminded everybody of Koufax. They’re going to reminisce about seeing Kershaw pitch, at the height of his career and at the front of the pack of all major league starters.

In an organization that has a long, rich history of great starting pitchers, Kershaw isn’t any of those guys. He is one of those guys. And one day, he may just go down as the best of them.

“Honestly, I try not to think about (that),” he said. “You know, no disrespect to the history that it is, and I understand about those guys who came before me, and this organization has a lot of pride and tradition. I’m not trying to take anything away from that. But for me, it’s too hard to think about all that and continue to pitch. I just try to enjoy every start I get and try not to screw things up too badly.”

Before the game today, Don Mattingly talked about Kershaw when he first came up compared to Kershaw now. That’s funny, because back in those days, whenever Joe Torre would get ejected from a game and Donnie would have to manage the rest of it, Donnie was never comfortable taking media questions about pitching after the game because he was the hitting coach. But apparently, he was paying attention even then, because he confidently ticked off details of the 20-year-old kid the Dodgers rushed to the big leagues in 2008.

“Back then, he was a two-pitch pitcher,” Mattingly said. “He was fastball-curveball. In this league, it’s tough to get a curveball called. Umpires miss those more than any other pitch, for me. And so when that would happen, he would become a one-pitch guy in the hitter’s mind, and he also was a one-side-of-the-plate guy.

“So he has just evolved.”

Evolved into a guy who now uses both sides of the plate, changes speeds, mixes pitches more effectively. A guy with a tough slider and, now, just in time for the playoffs, a big league-ready changeup.

Something else Kershaw was asked after the game — you can see it on the video I posted earlier — was whether he takes the time to appreciate what he has done. He basically said he does it at the beginning of the offseason, while he takes a couple of weeks to decompress before he starts working out for the following season. Kershaw and the Dodgers are hoping that time isn’t coming for a while yet.

Kershaw’s run to a likely second Cy Young Award is complete now. But the real work, treading through the minefield of baseball’s postseason against the game’s toughest, deepest lineups, is about to begin.

But maybe, just maybe, there are few more ovations coming soon for baseball’s best starting pitcher.

4 comments

  1. >> the deadline for casting those ballots is Wednesday, before the start of the first wildcard game.

    The NL Wild Card game is Tuesday… :)

  2. Quite possibly one of the best posts you’ve written for this blog!

  3. Thanks for reading and commenting!!