SAN DIEGO -- I sat down with Don Newcombe last week for another story I was working on about Clayton Kershaw. During the course of our conversation, he mentioned a chat he had with Kershaw a couple of days after that masterpiece in San Francisco at the end of the previous road trip, when Kershaw pitched eight shutout innings, struck out a dozen and beat Tim Lincecum for the second time this year.
In my postgame analysis of that game, I gave special mention to one of the last pitches Kershaw threw that afternoon, a beautiful, full-count slider that absolutely froze Giants center fielder Andres Torres. What made it so intriguing was the fact it was a pitch that in past years, and perhaps even earlier this year, we didn't often seen from Kershaw in that situation.
That was what made it intriguing for Newcombe, too.
"I told him, 'You know what the best pitch you threw in that game was?"' Newcombe said. "I said, 'It was that slider you threw to the center fielder on a full count.'"
It was only one pitch, of course. But it also was a perfect example of why Kershaw has come so far so quickly in a season in which he has become a first-time All-Star, is suddenly recognized as one of the best starting pitchers in the National League and now has four complete games on the season -- he had one in his career before this year.
There are many differences between the Kershaw of 2010 and this year's version, but one of the most obvious is the fact he now is willing to throw any pitch in any count and do it with conviction. Much like he did to Torres on July 20, Kershaw got two of his four strikeouts against the Padres with full-count sliders that were taken for strike three. In fact, on an evening when he made it through nine innings on just 108 pitches, Kershaw faced a full count only five times. In those situations, he threw two fastballs, both of which were put into play for outs, and three sliders, one of which missed the strike zone for one of his two walks.
"It doesn't matter with him," Dodgers catcher Rod Barajas said. "If he falls behind in the count, he isn't afraid to throw anything. That is what elite pitchers do. When you're in a fastball count, most hitters are trying to jump on the fastball, especially against somebody who has a good fastball like he does. Guys are ready for it. But he has that ability to throw something other than the fastball, and he has enough confidence in it to know he doesn't necessarily even have to throw it for a strike.
"That [slider] is such a good pitch that it's a swing-and-miss pitch. Hitters will jump at it, and he does get some swing-and-miss outs with it."
That Kershaw (13-4) not only has tied his career high from a year ago for wins but also is now tied for the NL lead in victories speaks to the fact that he not only has so many weapons -- because, really, he has always had those -- but that he is now willing to go to any of them regardless of who he is facing or what he is up against.
"He is using all his pitches, that's for sure," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "He is able to throw a 3-2 breaking ball or a 3-2 changeup. He has enough confidence that he can throw everything for strikes, and that is what makes him tough to handle. He is just a handful. There are guys like that out there, but there aren't many. He has probably gained more confidence as the season has gone on, because he is throwing more and more breaking balls when he is behind in the count."
Kershaw downplayed that aspect of his game.
"If they're coming after your fastball early in the count, you have to throw more offspeed stuff," he said. "That is really how I determine it."
Sandwiched between that domination of the Giants and this domination of the Padres was what I still consider to be Kershaw's signature performance of the season, his victory over the Colorado Rockies last Tuesday night when he clearly didn't have much working for him. Even without his best stuff, Kershaw managed to battle his way through 6 2/3 innings in which the Rockies got to him for eight hits but scored only two runs. The Dodgers held on for a 3-2 win, largely because Kershaw made a lot of big pitches at key times.
This one was a little weird by Kershaw standards, too. He was good this time, really good. But the Padres were aggressive, putting balls in play early in counts, so Kershaw, who is the runaway NL strikeouts leader, only added four to his season total. However, he seemed to get stronger at the end. After giving up a solo homer to one-time teammate Orlando Hudson leading off the seventh, momentarily cutting the Dodgers' lead to 4-2, Kershaw retired nine of 10 the rest of the way.
And therein lies another reason for Kershaw's leap forward this year: He has discovered a lot of different ways to pitch to hitters, but he also has discovered a lot of different ways to win games.
His success notwithstanding, this has been a tough year for Kershaw. The Dodgers (49-59) are mired in fourth place in the NL West, 11½ games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants, and the only news they seem to get these days is the bad kind -- the latest came after this game, when we learned promising rookie right-hander Rubby De La Rosa may be done for the season with a sprained ulnar collateral ligament.
If Kershaw was going to have the year of his life, this wasn't the way he envisioned it.
"It's tough to be in fourth place," he said. "It's tough to not really be in the hunt right now. But at the same time, our responsibility hasn't really changed. You come in and put in the work, and you can't worry about all the things that are out of your control."
Four out of every five days, of course, everything is totally beyond Kershaw's control. But these days, whenever it is his day to pitch, he seems to always be in complete control. Even when he falls behind in counts. Even when he doesn't have his best stuff. Even when the other team attacks him aggressively.
To Kershaw, none of that seems to matter anymore. And that is as clear a sign as any that he has become that top-tier starting pitcher the Dodgers always knew he would be.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.