Game 6 is next step for Kershaw

The rules at this time of year are pretty straightforward. Ten minutes after the conclusion of the game, the losing manager is required to be in the interview room. There's no real time to digest the events that conspired to land him in this room. Perspective is whatever comes out of his mouth, and from his gut, when he's asked a question.

Some managers ramble on as the thoughts and emotions from the game bounce off each other. Others get emotional.

Ten minutes after the Los Angeles Dodgers lost Game 4 of the National League Championship Series to the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday night at Dodger Stadium, manager Don Mattingly got real.

"Kind of the best thought I have," Mattingly said, when asked what thoughts were running through his mind now that his $220 million club had fallen into a 3-1 hole in this best-of-seven series, "is that I've got one of the best pitchers in baseball pitching tomorrow. And if we . . . get a win, I've probably got the best pitcher in baseball pitching the next day."

The first pitcher, of course, is former American League Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke.

The second pitcher needs no introduction.

At this moment, Clayton Kershaw is understood to be the best pitcher in baseball.

There are no serious debates. People don't worry about offending the three or four other pitchers who are in the same conversation. Kershaw's it. The best.

As the Dodgers head to St. Louis for Game 6 on Friday evening, that's a very comforting thought. If they're going down, if the Cardinals are going through them and on to the World Series, it will be against the best guy they could possibly have on the mound.

"Gotta feel pretty good about that," Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp said with a smile.

It is both an enormous responsibility and an enormous opportunity. A magnificent stage for the best in the game to shine, and a huge burden to place on a 25-year-old who has already been asked to do so much by a franchise with the highest ambitions.

Mostly, though, it is a moment.

His moment.

The one he's been building to, and the next step along the way.

"He's getting to the point in his career, which is crazy to say because he's only 25 years old, but this is the stage he wants to be on every year," said Kershaw's longtime friend, and catcher, A.J. Ellis.

"Clayton will tell you, first and foremost, his job as a baseball player is to win championships. That's what he's all about, and that's what separates him and makes him so great."

If the Dodgers are going to do that this year, Kershaw first has to deliver in Game 6. A win Friday night flips this series on its head. All of a sudden the Cardinals are staring down a second straight NLCS meltdown.

A loss and it's all simply over. This magical run the Dodgers have been on since they hit rock bottom in the middle of June comes grinding to a shocking halt.

Kershaw politely declined to offer his thoughts after the Dodgers beat the Cardinals 6-4 on Wednesday afternoon in Game 5 to extend the series. He was already deep into his preparation for the next game.

"Preparation wise, he's on the top, too," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "There's not anybody here [who] prepares better than Kersh does."

Every conversation about why Kershaw has become so consistently great begins with his preparation. You can't help but notice it. Teammates can't help but admire it.

"He works so hard between starts," Dodgers reliever Chris Withrow said.

"The day after his starts, he gets in there and blares some techno music and you get a glimpse of how hard he works.

"I go in [the workout room] every day to do my stretching and workout, and it looks like he's been swimming."

Withrow, a hard-throwing rookie right-hander who has become a staple of the Dodgers' bullpen this year, was drafted in the first round the year after the Dodgers took Kershaw seventh overall in 2006.

He's 24 years old and just got here. Kershaw's 25 and is about to win his second Cy Young award.

"Sometimes being right behind Kershaw, people were like, 'You know Kershaw was in the big leagues when he was 20?'" Withrow said. "I was like, 'Um, it's not that easy.' You have to learn little things. Sometimes it takes people longer. Sometimes people's steps are longer."

Withrow's trajectory is actually the more normal one. He started out as a starting pitcher, grinded that out for four and a half years, realized he was better suited to a relief role and eventually found his footing with the major league club.

"I had to learn more about myself and what I needed to do," Withrow said.

So did Kershaw. He just did it at the major league level.

It wasn't the Dodgers' plan to bring him up so early. They just needed him back in those days.

"Joe [Torre] was not afraid to run him out there," Honeycutt said. "Pretty much Joe just said, 'I'm putting the best we got out there and he's the best we got.'"

In 2008, the Dodgers brought him on the playoff roster and pitched him out of the bullpen. By 2009, he was starting Game 1 of the NLCS against the Phillies.

It was a lot to ask. But it set the tone for what came next.

"The more opportunities you get to handle yourself in those situations, the better you get," Honeycutt said. "He's never been a guy to shy away from any challenge."

Quite the contrary. Challenges excite him. So in Game 4 of the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves, he asked for the ball on three days' rest. A week later, he did the same for Game 5 of the NLCS.

"There was a big part of him that wanted to be out there today on short rest," Ellis said after Greinke delivered a victory in Game 5 on Wednesday. "But he couldn't jump Zack with the way Zack is throwing the ball."

There are some who will read that and conclude that Kershaw's trying to prove something. But the force that's driving him is a complicated one. He doesn't just want to be great, it's as if he has to be.

Not so that people will look back one day and say he was great, but so that he won't ever feel like he left something undone.

"I talk to some of the older guys who are on their last few years," Kershaw said in an interview earlier this season. "And you never want to look back and say 'What if?'

"You never know if or when it could be taken away from you."

Sandy Koufax, the man Kershaw has been compared to since the day the Dodgers drafted him, ended his career at age 30 because of arm trouble.

Kemp, who came of age alongside Kershaw in the Dodgers organization, is wheeling around the clubhouse on a scooter because his ankle is in a boot and his shoulder is too sore for crutches after a second surgery in two years.

It's more than that, though.

The fear of missing out isn't really a fear. It's a sense of responsibility to honor his talent and all the opportunities it creates.

"All you want is the respect of your teammates," Kershaw said. "Everything that I do is so that I don't have any regrets when I'm pitching and so I can look every one of these guys in the eye at the end of the day and know I did everything I possibly could."

It took a few years to harness all that talent. Early on the Dodgers surrounded him with mentors like Derek Lowe, Randy Wolf and Greg Maddux to speed up the process. He followed Japanese veteran Hiroki Kuroda around wherever he went, trying to learn from his routine. Honeycutt taught him to throw a slider to go along with a devastating fastball and that knee-buckling curveball. Mattingly convinced him hitters would only respect him if he proved he could consistently throw his breaking balls for strikes.

The last couple of seasons he's learned to manage a game and his pitch count more effectively.

"Clayton's told me many times, the way you measure a starting pitcher is by innings pitched," Ellis said. "That means you're being effective. He understands he has more value going eight innings and striking out three than going six and striking out 11 or 12."

Koufax went through a similar process. He actually took quite a bit longer to hone his craft. It took him until age 26 to have an ERA under 3.00. He didn't win 20 games until he was 27.

But by the time Koufax was Kershaw's age now, he'd already won two of his four career World Series titles.

Through the magic of baseball, or perhaps just because that's the way it ought to be, Kershaw and Koufax have become friends over the years.

"It's gratifying that I think of him as a friend and hopefully he thinks of me the same way," Koufax said after Kershaw pitched the Dodgers to a win in Game 4 of the NLDS on short rest. "He's just such a good person."

Koufax was waiting for him in the clubhouse after that victory, and they hugged amid the champagne celebration. Special as it was, it was just a nice moment along the way.

There is still a very long way for Kershaw to go.

It begins by picking up the ball Friday night.