LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw gave a surprising answer to a simple question not so long ago, and maybe it gets us a bit closer to the mindset of this generation's greatest pitcher. We were talking about the thrill of pitching, of being out there on the mound, somewhat alone, all the crowd focused on you.
So I asked him to talk about those special days when everything is working, every pitch clicks, the ball feels great coming out of the hand, the hitters flail away helplessly, a no-hitter is perhaps on the line ...
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"They say baseball's a game of failure," he said. "Well, that's only true on the offensive side. As a pitcher, you're supposed to succeed, and you're not supposed to give up a hit. Hitting's the hardest thing to do in sports. So, for me, I don't really consider that a special day. That's just another day."
He smiled a little.
"The days where it doesn't go right," he added, "those are the special days."
That's the essence of Clayton Kershaw right there. He always expects to pitch well, and not just because he's great, not just because he gets people out with any one of his four superb pitches -- fastball, slider, curveball, changeup -- and not even just that he's a competitive son of a gun.
He expects to succeed because he truly believes that the game is tilted in his favor.
Kershaw wanted to be a hitter, you know. He wears No. 22 because that was the number his idol and role model Will Clark wore. Clark was a first baseman with the sweetest swing imaginable, and that was the biggest dream the young Kershaw could summon.
He couldn't quite hit enough -- "I'm a good hitter for a pitcher," he says, spitting out the words as if they're a curse -- and this, among other things, convinced him that there's no excuse for giving up much. A pitcher's job, Kershaw believes, is way easier than a hitter's job.
And that's how he has pitched … in the regular season.
We'll come back to that.
First, let's go over just how dominant Kershaw has been. He has led the league in ERA five times in seven years -- it would be six times if he had gotten enough innings to qualify in 2016, when he posted a career-best 1.69 ERA. His career 2.36 ERA isn't just the best among starters since the Dead-Ball Era, it is by far the best. Here are the starters with at least 1,000 innings pitched:
- Clayton Kershaw, 2.36 ERA
- Whitey Ford, 2.75
- Sandy Koufax, 2.76
- Spud Chandler, 2.84
- Jim Palmer, 2.86
As impressive as that looks, it's actually more impressive considering that Kershaw has pitched in a much higher-scoring era than any of the others. His 161 ERA+, which takes into account the era and the ballpark, is the best in baseball history, even including the Dead-Ball Era. When it comes to preventing runs, Kershaw is, at this point -- he doesn't turn 30 until next March -- is about as good as anyone who ever pitched.
So, let's talk playoffs. I was here on Oct. 3, 2014, for one of the strangest things I've ever seen in baseball. It was Game 1, Dodgers vs. Cardinals, and for six innings, Kershaw was, well, Kershaw. He did uncharacteristically give up two home runs in those six innings, but those were the only two hits he allowed. He had struck out eight, didn't walk a batter, and had pretty vintage stuff. The Dodgers led, 6-2, and the world seemed in balance.
Then the craziest thing happened in the seventh: The Cardinals teed off on Kershaw. It wasn't just that they cracked six hits, it was that each one of them was an absolute rocket. It was so strange and unexpected that you imagine it caught then-Dodgers manager Don Mattingly completely off-guard; he left Kershaw out there to endure until the Cardinals took the lead.
Four days later, pitching on short rest, Kershaw was a bit better, but he still allowed three runs as the Cardinals took the series.
"My last thank you goes to the St. Louis Cardinals," Kershaw said as he accepted the National League MVP and Cy Young Awards that season. "Thank you for reminding me that you're never as good as you think you are."
Kershaw, as it turns out, gets reminded a lot about his postseason performances and his own mortality. He has had his good games and his rough ones, but overall, what people see is that 4-7 record and 4.55 ERA. It's pretty inexplicable. And even though it's a small sample size, and a couple of tough series against the Cardinals really inflates those numbers, we are talking about Clayton Kershaw, the ultimate perfectionist, a man who believes he should get every out.
So yes, people will be watching Kershaw closely tonight and all of October.
And what will Kershaw be thinking?
"Same approach and same demeanor," he says.
That's obvious. He already has had too many special days in his postseason career. Kershaw is ready to get back to those boring ordinary days when hitters don't stand a chance.