LOS ANGELES – Four years later, he is the ace they hoped he could be then. Four years after the bar debates, after the bleacher observations he surely couldn't be ready to start Game 1 of an NLCS, that for heaven's sake he's practically a child, Clayton Kershaw is the pitcher who changes everything.
"Older," Matt Kemp said. "Wiser."
"Yeah," Kemp said, reminded of the last playoff series that included the Los Angeles Dodgers, "everybody's grown up."
Four years later, Kershaw is not Joe Torre's hunch play against the Philadelphia Phillies (he walked five, allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings and took the loss that start), but Don Mattingly's undisputed No. 1 against whoever may come.
"If he's not the best," Mattingly said Friday afternoon, "you're going to have to sell me on who's better."
He stood Friday night before the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium, threw six shutout innings, allowed four hits, all singles, and struck out eight. He finished the regular season, his sixth, with 16 wins, 232 strikeouts, a 1.83 ERA and an 0.92 WHIP in 236 innings.
The list of L.A. Dodgers starters who have gone a season with a lower ERA: Sandy Koufax.
Kershaw will lead the NL in ERA, WHIP, strikeouts, other stuff, and likely will win his second Cy Young Award in three years. In between, he finished second, to R.A. Dickey, though he was better in some key statistical categories (like ERA and WHIP). Following one of those well-it's-Coors-Field kind of starts in Colorado on Sept. 2, Kershaw's ERA was 1.33 over his final four starts, and he enters the postseason on a run of 13 consecutive scoreless innings, over which he had 18 strikeouts.
As capable as he has been in the four years since – 64-33 record, three ERA titles, two strikeout titles, a 2.37 ERA over 131 starts, a rising standing in a largely veteran clubhouse – Kershaw has not thrown a postseason pitch since 2009, the byproduct of an organization that lost its footing under previous ownership. He used the time to develop a slider that is among the best pitches in the game, and to nurse a changeup that has its moments, and to command both sides of the plate with four pitches.
"Four years in the big leagues," he said, "you'll learn a lot. You learn how to pitch a little bit. I feel like I'm definitely prepared."
If a ballplayer is good enough, and if his team is good enough, and if his prime starts soon enough or extends long enough, then he comes upon a time such as Kershaw does. He has dominated April through September for those four years. At 25, he has just put behind him the most precise and most relentless season of his professional career.
Four years later, Kershaw has arrived at the place that measures many, pitchers and batters alike. It is where greatness can become something more, something like legend. Once cast into October as a confident young man, carrying two pitches not four and a sense of what worked if not certainty, he returns a grown man, a leader, and the Dodgers' hope that 25 years is quite long enough. Both for themselves, as they last were World Series champions in 1988, and for Kershaw, who was born that very year.
"He is keenly and tremendously refined," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said of the pitcher Kershaw was then to the one he is now. "I'm talking about everything that happens on the mound, whether it's physical or in the mind, on the mound, in the clubhouse, all he does. He refuses to accept anything that isn't the absolute best."
In that Friday night start, he didn't merely beat the Rockies with 82 pitches – a shortened start in preparation for his Game 1 start Thursday in St. Louis or Atlanta – over six innings. He picked a runner off first. He laced a single. He scored a run. He played the game. Then he tipped his cap, was shoved to the top step of the dugout for a curtain call for the 29th sellout – in 79 dates – at Dodger Stadium, and entered the postseason. It's out there, again. Out there, finally, after four years.
"He's the same guy," Mattingly said. "The same person. You probably wouldn't recognize the pitcher he is now though."
The air chills. The light focuses, sharpens. The world leans in. And we wait to see what October pulls from Kershaw.
"That's sports, right, in general?" Mattingly said. "We want to see what a guy can do on the big stage. For most fans, it's probably the way it pushes you to the next level. It pushes you to another level still."
His hair damp from a post-game shower, Kershaw considered that. He wore board shorts and a T-shirt. His beard grows grudgingly. He's still just 25 and looks barely that. Still, perhaps, in some ways, practically a child. Only not here, not at 7:00 on the night of a start, not when there's a game to pitch, a game to play.
The regular season was behind him. A big game awaited.
"Now's the time," he said. "I'm going to start thinking about it. It's all about the playoffs. It's all about Game 1 for me.
"Nobody remembers second place. Nobody remembers who won the American League or who won the National League. They remember who won the World Series. At the end of the day, unless you win the whole thing, no one remembers."
Four years later, the ball is his. Again.