Handling potential pressure

PITTSBURGH -- One day after what might be the last Los Angeles Dodgers' season opener for the foreseeable future in which he wasn't the starting pitcher, Clayton Kershaw was asked about where he fits into the grand scheme of one of baseball's most scrutinized organizations. It would have been a heady question for a veteran, much less for a guy less than a month removed from his 22nd birthday, but Kershaw handled it the way he handles pretty much everything, with the grace and articulation of someone much older.

It was another example of why Dodgers officials believe -- even if they steadfastly refuse to say it publicly -- that this kid will one day anchor their starting rotation, and that that day isn't all that far off.

"Being a staff ace isn't just a title that you get," Kershaw said. "I think people throw around that ace label all the time, but that's a status you have to earn, and you can't earn it in one year, either. It's over an extended period of time. It's a level of respect. It means you're the person who, every time you take the ball, your teammates are really confident that they are going to win that game."

It's also something that can be at the same time a tremendous honor and a crushing burden. And therein lies the primary reason Kershaw is scheduled to start the Dodgers' second game of the season, on Wednesday night against Pittsburgh, rather than the first.

There isn't anyone in the Dodgers' organization who doesn't view Kershaw as a potential staff ace. But there is one person in the organization, the only one who counts at the moment, who doesn't believe Kershaw is ready to carry that status just yet.

"I don't think it would be fair for us to put it all on him," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "Just from a point of history, when you have a kid who hasn't really been around that long, and all of a sudden you start counting on him to win X number of games. He handles it all really well, and he certainly isn't afraid of being the No. 1 guy. But I think it would be unfair to do that to him at this point in time."

Torre cited the example of Scipio Spinks, his old teammate with St. Louis in the early 1970s. The Cardinals had traded lefty Jerry Reuss to Houston to get Spinks, meaning the trade itself brought a certain amount of pressure. In 1972, his first year with the club, Spinks made 16 starts, posted a 2.67 ERA and gave up just 96 hits in 118 innings.

"I realized how much we were counting on him being one of our top starters the next year, and he just couldn't do it," Torre said. "I remember thinking at the time that it really wasn't fair for us to do that, even though it was a natural thing to do, because he had the right kind of personality."

Spinks went 1-5 with a 4.89 ERA in 1973, then never pitched in the majors again.

No one envisions a similar fall for Kershaw, even if he were to be prematurely anointed the Dodgers' ace. But that bit of insight Torre filed away almost four decades ago is still part of what shapes his managerial philosophy. As Kershaw said, ace status is something that has to be earned over several years, and Kershaw has been in the majors for less than two seasons.

Part of what highlights him as a potential ace, though, is the fact there aren't really any other potential aces in this rotation. There was a time when Chad Billingsley -- like Kershaw, a first-round draft pick who became the Dodgers' top pitching prospect the moment he came into the organization -- had that potential. Now, almost five years after his big league debut, Billingsley is still trying to find himself.

Kershaw hasn't truly found himself, either. But the difference is, he hasn't really had time -- and outwardly, he seems to be more comfortable with who he is as a pitcher than Billingsley does.

"Kershaw is probably a little more laid-back than Bills is," Torre said. "They are both very competitive. But Kershaw goes out there and basically just comes right at you. Billingsley, I think he asks himself to do a lot of things that are very tough to do, and that is to be perfect. That is where they differ somewhat. I guess Kershaw trusts his stuff a little more than Billingsley does."

Torre also cited the example of Andy Pettitte, who was consistently one of the best starting pitchers in the American League while pitching for Torre with the New York Yankees. Torre said Pettitte had ace-worthy stuff, but that Pettitte was always more comfortable when someone else carried the label of ace so Pettitte could simply focus on pitching and avoid the distractions that come with the title.

Ultimately, Billingsley may be the Dodgers' version of Pettitte, with Kershaw stepping into the role of front man -- a role Kershaw doesn't see as any type of burden.

"Not if you pitch like one," he said. "Everybody can say you're an ace after you go out and win one game or have one good month. But there are a select few guys in this game who can go out there and do that every time. The best pitchers in this game are the guys who want to compete. No matter what the situation, they want the ball. I'm not saying there aren't guys on our team who can do that. But the guys who are successful at it are the ones who have done it for a very long time."

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.