So, maybe he'd be all right. Maybe he wouldn't disappear down the slippery slope that swallowed his equally talented teammate, Chad Billingsley(notes), a year ago. Maybe Kershaw's confidence wouldn't waver in the face of a flood of Philadelphia Phillies walks, hits and runs.
In fact, unlike the T-shirt, it was hard to tell Kershaw was any worse for the wear. At 21 years and 211 days, he was the youngest pitcher to start a league championship series Game 1. And although he rewarded Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre's faith in him by rattling off four scoreless innings, Kershaw crumbled in the fifth, surrendering five runs to the Phillies, who eventually won, 8-6, Thursday night at Dodger Stadium.
In the fateful fifth Kershaw threw three wild pitches, the most ever in an LCS inning and tied for the most in an LCS game. And in a sign of his inexperience, Kershaw followed a single by Raul Ibanez(notes) and walk to Pedro Feliz(notes) by grooving a 3-and-1 fastball to Carlos Ruiz(notes), who belted it into the left-field stands for a three-run home run.
Instead of gathering himself, Kershaw unraveled. He walked opposing pitcher Cole Hamels(notes), then two wild pitches and four batters later Kershaw gave up a two-run double to Ryan Howard(notes). Torre replaced his young ace, and the Big 5 on the scoreboard was too much for the Dodgers to overcome.
Now he needs the aftermath to be less than overwhelming. Last year in the NLCS against the Phillies, Billingsley was shelled in Game 2 and responded by recoiling from the attention. He barely could speak after the loss, and in Game 5 he was nearly as bad, losing again and mumbling into his shirt. Kershaw seemed determined not to let this devastating loss to the defending World Series champions cause similar psychological damage.
"It's going to hurt tonight, no getting around it," he said. "But it'll be a quick turnaround with Game 2 so early tomorrow, so hopefully we get a win and forget about it."
The Phillies send veteran Pedro Martinez(notes) to the mound against the Dodgers' Vicente Padilla(notes) in Game 2 on Friday at 4 p.m. ET. The Dodgers need a victory to avoid heading to Philadelphia down two games to none in the best-of-seven series.
Eventually the Dodgers will need more from Kershaw, a first-round draft pick in 2006 whose rapid ascent through the minors is a testament to his electric stuff and rapid maturity. His solid performance in Game 2 of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals and a dominant effort against the Colorado Rockies in his last regular-season start were enough to prompt Torre to give him the ball.
And to leave him in the game long enough to invite second-guessing.
"He's a tough kid," Torre said. "He had a rough inning. It looked like he tried to overthrow the ball. It looked like he got frustrated out there."
Don't expect Torre to shy away from starting Kershaw in a Game 5, if one is necessary. Billingsley is deep in the doghouse after following an All-Star first half with a poor last three months. Kershaw, the Dodgers believe, is somewhere between Billingsley and Koufax, certainly resilient.
"Yes, he's inexperienced, and yes, he's been tested with us," Torre said. "As far as the pressure of the game, he certainly can handle it. But sometimes things get away from you, whether you have experience or you don't have experience."
Kershaw answered every question squarely afterward. He already has figured out that it's part of the deal. He denied having jitters. He denied tiring in the fifth inning.
"I lost the strike zone a little," he said, shrugging. "I didn't throw enough strikes. You give up that many walks in an inning, something is going to happen."
Simple explanation. No need to overanalyze. Move on. Clayton Kershaw is going to have a long career. This was an early bump in a long ride.
Kershaw's teammates know as much. Especially the young ones. Outfielder Matt Kemp(notes), himself a precocious talent at 25, pondered Kershaw's disastrous fifth inning and said, "He just lost his groove for a quick second."
Shortly after the game Kershaw's groove was back on. He finished dressing and bounced out into the night. He'd be back the next day, all of 21 years and 212 days old. There's a lot to look forward to.