Clayton Kershaw has never really had the luxury of a middle ground.
The promising Dodgers left-hander, the kid who was drawing comparisons to Sandy Koufax almost from the moment he was drafted out of a suburban Dallas high school nearly four years ago, will take the mound in the second game of a three-game series at San Diego on Saturday night. If he pitches well, as he did when he turned in eight shutout innings in his most recent start Sunday against Colorado, he will be anointed by fans and the media, for roughly the millionth time since he came to the major leagues, as the ace the Dodgers so desperately need. If he pitches badly, well, the hue and cry will go up yet again.
What is wrong with Kershaw? When is he going to pitch up to his potential? When is he going to mature into the No. 1 starter we have been told he is capable of being?
The fact of the matter is, Kershaw has one of those problems only time will fix.
"It's all about experience," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "With today's media, we always want to anoint somebody a superstar before their time."
And clearly, Kershaw's time hasn't come yet. Not now, not when he is barely a month into his second full season in the majors and is less than two months past his 22nd birthday.
A big part of all this is the advance billing. When the Dodgers drafted Kershaw with their first pick in 2006, signing him to a $2.3 million bonus, he immediately became their top pitching prospect and probably their biggest pitching prospect in at least a generation. Because of that, many fans latched their hopes to him from day one.
The fact Kershaw dominated at every level of the minors and climbed through the minors so quickly only fed into that. Late in his second professional season, he went from low Single-A all the way to Double-A, and it wouldn't be the last time he would leapfrog an entire level. By the second month of his third season -- less than two years after he was drafted -- Kershaw was in the majors, a move which many fans already had spent weeks clamoring for by then.
By the time Kershaw made his big league debut against St. Louis on May 25, 2008, pitching six strong innings and getting a no decision in a game the Dodgers would eventually win in extra innings, the expectations already were so high that Kershaw couldn't possibly meet them.
And you know what happens when a hot prospect doesn't meet expectations.
"We brought him up here without a whole lot of minor league experience," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "And we didn't bring him up to a second-division club or a club that didn't have a huge following. We brought him up to one of the most renowned franchises in all of professional sports in one of the biggest markets in the world. It's not an easy thing to do. But I think if you look at the second half of last year, you can see why this kid has a chance to be a very good pitcher at this level."
Kershaw's record fell off to 1-3 after the All-Star break last year, but that was due mostly to a lack of run support. In almost every other statistical area, he showed marked improvement. He gave up only 51 hits -- and two home runs -- in 71 1/3 innings, and his walks per nine innings ratio fell off by more than one, from 5.3 to 4.0.
The turnaround came after pitching coach Rick Honeycutt convinced Kershaw to do two things. First, Honeycutt got him to move from the third-base side of the pitching rubber, where he had always worked, to the middle, largely because Honeycutt showed Kershaw a chart that proved most of his curveballs to right-handed hitters were missing down and in. And second, Honeycutt got Kershaw to add a slider.
But that stellar second half led, of course, to even higher expectations for Kershaw coming into 2010 -- expectations that, once again, he couldn't possibly meet.
Until Sunday, there was no denying that Kershaw had regressed somewhat. He went into that game 1-2 with a 4.99 ERA, and his walks per nine innings ratio was a ghastly 7.0. Two starts ago, he suffered a flat-out beatdown by Milwaukee, which torched him for seven runs in 1 1/3 innings. But in that one afternoon against the Rockies, Kershaw gutted his ERA by more than a run (to 3.96) and shaved his walks per nine innings ratio to 6.3.
And that, in a nutshell, is what Kershaw is at this stage of his career and this stage of his life: a mixed bag. While he is closing in on two years of big league service time, he is still young, he is still comparatively inexperienced, and no matter how much the media and the fan base want him to be the stopper he probably will be one day, it probably isn't going to happen, at least not on a consistent basis, any time soon.
"He is a guy who is very confident in his ability," Honeycutt said. "That night he had that tough first inning [against the Brewers], the next day, we talked to him, and he had a good wit about him. It wasn't 'woe is me,' and there were no excuses. He always takes responsibility. I have never heard him make excuses for anything.
"He wants the ball, and he wants to be the guy. That is the type of thing that can't be coached. Either you have it or you don't."
And so, all there is for the Dodgers to do where Kershaw is concerned is sit back and wait for him to become the pitcher everyone is fairly certain he will be. In the meantime, there will be successful spurts, and there will almost certainly be bouts of failure -- all of which will eventually be chalked up to learning experiences when Kershaw finally does reach his full potential as a front-of-the-rotation, major league starter.
"I think the game still speeds up for him at times," Honeycutt said. "But those are the times when you learn. Joe talks about it all the time, that you may not like certain things that you see, but you have to have patience."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.