LOS ANGELES -- When Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw takes the mound for his next start Thursday in the opening round of the NL Division Series, he’ll have that same youthful-looking appearance.
He’ll just be a completely different-looking pitcher.
Kershaw has evolved into one of the top hurlers in baseball, proving so once again Friday night while throwing six shutout innings in an 11-0 victory against the visiting Colorado Rockies.
Kershaw improved to 16-9, but the stat that’ll likely stand out for years to come is his ERA. He dropped that mark to 1.83, the lowest in the major leagues since Pedro Martinez posted a 1.74 as a member of the Boston Red Sox in 2000, and the lowest by a southpaw since Ron Guidry of the New York Yankees in 1978 (1.74).
Kershaw also became the first pitcher since Greg Maddux of the Atlanta Braves (1993-95) to lead the majors in ERA for three consecutive seasons and just the second member of the Dodgers to finish with a sub-2.00 ERA. Sandy Koufax accomplished that feat three times in the 1960s.
The Dodgers made things easy on Kershaw by scoring four runs in the first, another in the third and three more in the fourth on Carl Crawford’s three-run blast. Kershaw had a hand in that, too, singling with one out before Crawford launched his sixth home run of the season.
Kershaw showed he was on his game right from the start, striking out Charlie Blackmon on three pitches to open the game. He twice struck out soon-to-be-retired first baseman Todd Helton. Kershaw allowed four hits among his 82 pitches, struck out eight and didn’t walk a batter.
Of course, the Dodgers can’t seem to take two steps forward without taking one back this season. Yasiel Puig left the game in the top of the sixth after fouling a pitch off his left foot for the second time in the game. He returned to the batter’s box and hit the next pitch in the air to right field, limping noticeably as he jogged to first.
The injury brought back memories of the last weekend series at Dodger Stadium, when the hosts lost Puig, fellow outfielders Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford and shortstop Hanley Ramirez to injuries. Ethier remains sidelined with a lower left leg injury.
The other downside Friday night was the St. Louis Cardinals' beating the Chicago Cubs, assuring the Dodgers of a road game Thursday when they open the playoffs against either the Cardinals or Atlanta Braves.
But on this night, once again, it was all about Kershaw.
“He’s still the same kid who was tough and worked hard and was hard-headed, in a sense, with his stuff, but he’s come so far from the standpoint of his willingness to get better,” said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who played five seasons with Guidry in New York.
Kershaw didn’t hold runners on base very well when he first joined the Dodgers. Now he does. He had only two pitches in his arsenal, a fastball and a curve, but has since added a slider and changeup. He dominated just one side of the plate. Now he owns both corners. He’s even become a better hitter.
“He has just evolved,” Mattingly said. “He’s a total different matchup for you as a hitter than he used to be. This is obviously the same guy, the same person, but you probably wouldn’t recognize him if you looked at the games he pitched then versus now.”
Kershaw was a wide-eyed 20-year-old when he made his first postseason appearance five years ago, pitching two innings of relief in a five-game loss to the Philadelphia Phillies in the NL Championship Series. He returned to the postseason the following year and made three starts before the Dodgers were again cut down in the NLCS.
Four years later, Kershaw gets another shot at winning a World Series. Just getting to the playoffs is no longer good enough.
“Nobody remembers second place,” Kershaw said. “Nobody remembers who won the American League or who won the National League, they remember who won the World Series. So getting to the playoffs is nice, it’s definitely a huge accomplishment, but at the end of the day, unless you win the whole thing, no one remembers.”