Clayton Kershaw: Man...myth...legend

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Tim Brown
·MLB columnist
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LOS ANGELES – They make stuff up all the time here. There’s a whole industry that makes stuff up and then charges people money to come see it. Sometimes it seems it is all there is here, the industry that makes stuff up. That, transplanted Mets fans and tiny little plates of pretty food.

So the real stuff tends to stand out. Put it up on a small pile of dirt on a large green field, build a stadium around it, add an organ and a familiar tenor, and in a city that loves its make-believe you get one Clayton Kershaw. That’s why all the No. 22 jerseys gathered on Thursday night at the rails in the left-field corner, where Kershaw … warmed up. In a place where the brighter the better, that runs on the aura, he is the only real sports star – in name, in standing, in results.

Kobe’s gone. Trout’s too far away. The football team is only just unpacking. Nothing else rates.

So, the left off of Sunset Boulevard onto Vin Scully Avenue takes a few more lights than normal. So the cookies in the press box dining room disappear faster than normal. So the beer is colder and the crackle louder and the mountains more purple and, when the curveball loops and takes a hard right turn, the oohs come from somewhere deeper.

He builds orphanages and schools and wins awards and goes on short rest if necessary and expects something close to perfection from himself and so, in fairness to this city, if you were going to make somebody up you’d do worse than to start with him, even if it all might seem a touch taut for non-fiction.

The Dodgers, the team here, have spent six weeks at mediocre, except for Kershaw and a couple others. They are 7-1 in his starts, 11-16 in the rest. They score more than five runs in his starts, where perhaps there is a greater expectation for better, and score almost a run-and-a-half fewer the rest of the time. There is something coaches and athletes talk about, when a team’s best player is its hardest worker and toughest man, what that does over three hours. What that demands on the day he stands out there. Already he has pitched the game after a Dodgers loss five times. He’s won four of them.

He holds them up.

Clayton Kershaw throws against the New York Mets during the first inning on May 12. (AP)
Clayton Kershaw throws against the New York Mets during the first inning on May 12. (AP)

On Thursday night, in a place that can’t know what to think of this version of the Dodgers, Kershaw beat the first-place Mets. The bullpen door opened at 7:02 p.m. and closed behind him. Two hours and 13 minutes later, Kershaw had struck out 13 of them and allowed three hits and won, 5-0 – his 14th career shutout, his 23rd complete game, his 119th career win against 57 losses in his 250th start. If somebody in the bullpen moved, it was to get a better view.

There’s no good way to distinguish these eight starts against three Cy Young Award seasons, one of which came with an MVP award. Just more of the same. In a game of imperfect, the imperceptible fluctuations are what makes him him. Thirty-three starts. One hundred or 110 or so pitches in them, each one thrown with the conviction of a guy swinging a shoe at a spider. That’s because he sweats every detail for four days leading to the first pitch – on Thursday a 94-mph fastball on the black to Curtis Granderson – and gets to the second one when it’s time.

So he strikes out 10 or more hitters for a fifth consecutive start, a Dodgers record. So he strikes out 77 and walks four across 62 innings, and walks just one – David Wright in the first inning on Thursday -- since April 21. So maybe he wants to be, as Dave Roberts (and others here) call him, “the best pitcher on the planet,” but for a few hours it’s plenty enough to be the best pitcher on Vin Scully Avenue, as long as he wins.

“It’s the preparation,” veteran left-hander Scott Kazmir said earlier in the day. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. The minute-to-minute routine, every … single … day. It’s like he never breaks stride. Everything has this super focus.”

The numbers that follow come from that, from chasing something he’ll never reach, that being perfection. Today starts, however, and he gets after it again. Nearly 20 strikeouts to every walk is pretty close. Four walks over 225 batters faced is pretty close.

“Never seen it,” Kazmir said. “It just doesn’t happen. And I’m just not surprised. That’s pitching right there.”

On April 4, he walked Yangervis Solarte on a 3-and-1 pitch. On April 9, Hunter Pence on four pitches. On April 21, Freddie Freeman on a 3-and-1 pitch. And on May 12, David Wright took a full-count fastball, down and in. That’s the list. None has scored.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Kershaw said, “other than walking guys is how you get in trouble.”

Therefore, he tries not to do that.

“Clayton was Clayton,” Roberts said after. “He’s a beast.”

He’s what sports look like here anymore, when his right knee comes up, then lowers, like he’s aborting the delivery, and then fires again. His arms spread and the ball disappears and then it arrives in a hiss. After a few of those, they play, “I Love L.A.”

Happens all the time here. Has for years. So it must be real.