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10/05/09 3:22 AM ET

Kershaw ripe for breakout, comparison

NLDS a big stage, but Dodgers see 21-year-old as star

LOS ANGELES -- Sooner or later, Clayton Kershaw seems destined to be "The Guy" of the Dodgers' starting rotation -- and it's looking more like sooner rather than later.

Like, maybe, right now.

He was a 20-year-old rookie bit player in last year's playoffs with two innings of relief, but he'll be starting Game 2 of the National League Division Series against St. Louis on Thursday, the youngest Dodger given the ball in the postseason since Fernando Valenzuela. Randy Wolf earned the Game 1 nod based on consistency and experience, but it is Kershaw's electric left arm that has the potential to dominate, even against a lineup as potent as the one the Cardinals possess.

In fact, one of Kershaw's best games of the year was July 29 in St. Louis: eight scoreless innings, just four hits. But three weeks later against the Cardinals at home, he was wild and couldn't get out of the fourth inning. He is, after all, 21.

But the most important game Kershaw pitched was Saturday night's clincher against Colorado, and he dealt with that pressure just fine, firing six scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts, including the first five batters to set the tone. There was plenty on the line -- the NL West title and home-field advantage through the playoffs for a team on a five-game losing streak and needing a stopper.

How will Kershaw handle the intensity of the playoffs?

"Yesterday was the biggest game I've pitched in my life, but it was still a regular-season game," he said Sunday. "I'm sure the atmosphere [in the NLDS] is going to be pretty crazy. You try to use it to your advantage instead of as a detriment. It's OK to be amped up, to feel the atmosphere, as long as it doesn't hinder you and you lose control of what you're trying to do.

"When I first came up, I would get out of control and a little unsettled. It takes getting used to. You have to learn to deal with it. You need to learn that real quick."

Kershaw respectfully sidesteps any question about wanting to be the ace. Nobody around him, though, dodges those questions.

"He stepped up -- that's what you want out of a starting pitcher," said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. "You want a guy who feels, 'You're not going to beat me tonight.' What we've seen the whole year, he stepped up yesterday like he's stepped up the whole year. Those guys that want to be in that position are few and far between.

"Obviously, you compare him to Fernando because of their age. Orel [Hershiser] turned into that at a much later stage. You always want to see that, but some guys never reach that point of being 'The Guy.' A lot of people don't even want to deal with that pressure and responsibility. But the best of the best, that's what they want -- the biggest situation, when it matters the most, to be the one people depend upon. That's Clayton."

Wolf sees Kershaw possessing the ingredients to get very good.

"The biggest reason he could be a stud is how mature he is and the mental part of his game," said Wolf. "He has a desire to be 'The Guy' out there and to get better, and the humility to understand he doesn't have it all figured out. No question, he's got the tools physically and mentally to really be outstanding.

"He reminds me of Cole Hamels, who I saw coming up in Philadelphia. When he took the mound, he felt nobody was better than him. He was cocky, but not in an obnoxious way. When Kershaw's out there, he knows he's good and you want that. You don't want a timid guy out there."

Kershaw wasn't timid when he arrived with a mid-90s fastball and an overhand curve. This year he's made progress with a changeup, but also slipped in a slider that he's been using with increasing frequency.

Kershaw downplays his ability to be overpowering and cringes when comparisons are drawn to the greatest Dodgers left-hander, Sandy Koufax, but here they come. Koufax didn't make his first postseason start until he was 23. Kershaw is 13-13 with a 3.36 ERA in two seasons. Koufax was 9-10 with a 4.00 ERA through age 21.

Because of Kershaw's age, manager Joe Torre has literally handled him with kid gloves, sticking with a 100-pitch limit that is partially to blame for 14 no-decisions and a winless stretch dating back 12 starts to July 18, despite an ERA of 2.52 in that span.

"We've tried to protect this kid to a point of thinking he couldn't handle the responsibility," Torre said the day after the Dodgers clinched. "Last night was a pretty good answer to all that."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.