Kershaw emerging as more than Dodgers' ace
Opening Day starter turning fame into aid for less fortunate
LOS ANGELES -- It's not uncommon for a young Major Leaguer, flush with cash, to buy a new house.
It is uncommon when that house will become an orphanage in the poor African nation of Zambia.
Just another example why Clayton Kershaw is special. There is more to Kershaw than the golden left arm that has drawn comparisons to Sandy Koufax, as well as earned him Thursday's Opening Day start for the Dodgers against the Giants and Tim Lincecum at 5 p.m. PT.
Inspired by a trip to Africa over the winter with his new bride, Ellen, Kershaw this season will donate $100 for every strikeout toward the building of that orphanage. It's called "Kershaw's Challenge" and fans can pledge to the cause by visiting http://ariseafrica.org/kershawschallenge.htm.
"When you have everybody seeing everything you do, a lot of good can come from that," said Kershaw, putting a positive spin on his blossoming fame. "This is one way that I can contribute to a great cause."
Of course to the Dodgers, cause No. 1 starts Thursday, although in fact Kershaw was handed the torch of staff ace by manager Don Mattingly on the final day of last season, when Kershaw was told the responsibility was his. Kershaw, 23, will be the Dodgers' youngest Opening Day starter since Fernando Valenzuela, who was 22 when he opened the 1983 season.
The new manager wasn't exactly sticking his neck out. After all, Joe Torre handed Kershaw the ball at age 21 to start a playoff game in 2009, then days later had him start Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
"I try to remind myself of that, that while Opening Day historically is a big day in baseball, at the same time, the playoff game means more," said Kershaw.
"Keep that in perspective. I sort of see it as another step. My first year, I pitched in the playoffs out of the bullpen. Then I started a postseason game. Then I started Game 1. It's the same way I see my career. I want to keep progressing. This is one more progression and you kind of learn from everything."
Kershaw is a fast learner. Just ask his catchers.
"The first time I caught him was in Jacksonville in 2007," A.J. Ellis said. "He was 19, he came up from low A, skipped high A, so you knew he was special. We had heard all about him. You don't expect a guy to live up to that hype. He surpassed it. He came into the clubhouse and fit right in. But we also knew we wouldn't have him very long.
"The big leagues hasn't changed him at all. He's still the same consistent person and pitcher and he's getting better, which is scary. He's become the leader of the pitching staff. Guys follow his work ethic -- his approach, routine, attention to detail. He's very consistent. He's a guy you build franchises upon."
Ellis has had the pleasure of watching Kershaw's progression. Rod Barajas didn't know much about Kershaw when he joined the Dodgers last summer.
"What I'd heard about was a good fastball and a great curveball. That's all I'd heard about," Barajas said. "For some reason, something about inconsistent with the fastball. When I came here, I realized his fastball location was pretty darn good. Both sides of the plate, work up and down, move it around.
"My second thought was his slider was really good. We use it twice as much as the curveball in the game. When he's behind in the count, it's a strike pitch for him. I didn't know he had that. The fact that he had a second pitch he can throw for strikes and he's not afraid to throw it makes him so much more than what I expected."
The mid-90s fastball, a 12-6 curveball, the makings of a changeup and now a reliable slider. Oh, and the intangibles.
"Last year at 22, I never saw him rattled on the mound," said Barajas. "He'd have a bad inning, he went right back out there the next inning and shut them down for the rest of the game. That shows you something. He has a serious work ethic. He's constantly doing something. He gets excited to pitch, he loves to compete. The kid is not satisfied. He wants to improve as a pitcher. He wants to be around for a long time, and he will be around a long time.
"I saw Brandon Webb early on [with Arizona]. He came into the league and just pitched. The same goes for him. You don't see him changing his approach. You see the confidence building. Look at Roy Halladay. Maybe the hardest worker I've seen. Like Halladay, this kid works, he's constantly watching video. That's where I see Kershaw heading, in that direction. He's always got something going on. You rarely see him reading the paper at his locker, doing nothing. He knows he has a job to do. He's ready for Opening Day and all that comes with it."
Ellis said it's the slider that has taken Kershaw to the next level and, typically, it came naturally.
"In 2009 I got called up for a three-game series at Wrigley Field and between starts Kersh had been scuffling with his curveball," he said. "He and [pitching coach Rick] Honeycutt and [bullpen catcher Mike Borzello] decided he'd try a slider. He tried it in the bullpen and took it right into his next start. I think that pitch took him from a really good pitcher to a great pitcher, which is what he is today. Right away he had a feel for the pitch.
"Today's slider is basically that same pitch. It gives him a pitch off his fastball. The curveball is so sharp with so much break, a lot of hitters give up on it and it's only a quality result if it's a called strike. They don't swing and miss it. The slider looks like a fastball for so much longer and the hitter has to make a decision to swing or not. The hitter has to respect that."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.