LOS ANGELES – Every so often, in the clubhouse, at a hotel, on an airplane, Dodgers pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Hiroki Kuroda will begin a conversation. In his second season of American baseball, Kuroda’s English is a work in progress. Sometimes, unsteadily groping for the right word or the proper phrase, he will turn to his interpreter for a bailout, only to be stopped.
“No Hiroki,” Kershaw will kindly say to his older, much more accomplished teammate. “I know it’s hard, but you know the words. We’re going to speak English, you and me … it’ll help you get better.”
This anecdote, related by Dodgers interpreter Kenji Nimura, touches on why the odds are good Kershaw will fulfill his uncommon promise: Instead of shying from difficult moments, he views them as opportunities, chances to grow.
In a public forum, we saw this at Chavez Ravine Friday night, the tall 21-year-old left-hander rebounding from the ugliest two losses of his career by throwing a glistening gem. Kershaw shut out San Diego over seven innings. He matched Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy’s every pitch. He leaned on his fastball but escaped his most threatening jam with a slippery bender that induced a meek groundout. The Dodgers walked off winners, 1-0.
Considering Kershaw’s great importance to his team, considering also the fact those two terrible losses could have sunk his confidence, this was as impressive and important a performance as we’ve seen from a Dodgers pitcher this young season. The kind of game that could push Kershaw to another level. The kind that may one day be viewed as key to a great year for the entire team.
Consider the starkly uneven results he’d produced before Friday. April 15, at home, he strikes out 13 and draws comparisons to Sandy Koufax. Then, the wheels crumble. April 21, at Houston: six runs in just over four innings. April 26, at Colorado, he gives up nine runs. He can’t make it past the fifth inning. He rushes, presses, pushes and looks unsettled, remarkable for someone known for an unyielding calm.
“I’d make a mistake and find myself hurrying, speeding up, going way too fast, trying to get back to the mound to correct it,” Kershaw said. “It was awful.”
Among Dodgers management, after the two disasters, there was certainly concern. On a hard-hitting team with an unsettled pitching staff, Kershaw delivering a superior season could tip the Dodgers to the World Series.
“I could argue he’s the most important pitcher on the team,” I told Ned Colletti, the general manager, after Friday’s game.
“I’ll let you in the media say that,” Colletti said. “But I will say that going back to when we brought him up, knowing he was going to go through times like he just experienced, we were not concerned that this would be a black cloud. We knew he could turn around.”
After the two poor starts, Colletti pulled his young charge aside. He reminded Kershaw what was expected.
There are wily veterans, and rookie phenoms, who’d balk at this. Kershaw’s response? “Thank you, Mr. Colletti.”
It was trademark humility, something that quickly shows while he talks. I asked Kershaw to describe his outlook amid tough times.
He said he tries to be a sponge: “I keep my ears and eyes open. Shut up and listen and learn. Don’t talk too much. I have nothing to tell these guys about baseball, they have everything to tell me.”
Said he works to keep perspective: “There’s fear, especially when you are a young guy, of being sent down, and that crops in your head. So what if that happens, so what? You get sent down you pitch the way you are capable of you will be back. There are worse things in the world than being sent to minor league baseball.”
Well considered, Mr. Kershaw. Friday night, well done.
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