LOS ANGELES -- Clayton Kershaw hadn't endured the interminable rain delay the Los Angeles Dodgers had waited through on Thursday night in Pittsburgh. He hadn't struggled to find a comfortable sleeping position on a cross-country flight that got the Dodgers home in the middle of the night, just a few hours before time to go back to work. He hadn't shown up at the ballpark with his internal needle on empty like everybody else, because, as is custom with quick turnarounds, he had been sent home early on a commercial flight to make sure he got plenty of sleep before his scheduled start against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday night.
By the middle of the third inning, the plan had worked to perfection for the well-rested Kershaw. He had more than enough energy to beat himself up.
As a visibly angry Kershaw marched toward the dugout at that point in the game, there was little hint of what was to come. He had just deftly wriggled free of major trouble, trouble that began when he issued a four-pitch walk to the opposing pitcher to lead off the inning and intensified when he issued another freebie to load the bases with one out, but he was in no mood for any sort of fist-pumping revelry. Instead, he covered his face with his glove so television viewers couldn't read his lips and yelled something into it with such intensity that the veins in his neck appeared to be popping out.
"We didn't talk too much (after that inning), but I can tell with Kersh when he turns it on, when he gets to that point where he knows he better start executing pitches," Dodgers catcher Rod Barajas said.
It was that moment, that fleeting bit of self-flagellation, that would prove the turning point in what for the Dodgers became a 4-3 victory before 35,506 at Dodger Stadium. It also defined exactly what it is about Kershaw that has Dodgers officials so convinced he is on an inexorable march toward major league stardom.
Following the walk to Nady, Kershaw came back to strike out Stephen Drew -- one of three of those by the Diamondbacks cleanup hitter, all with runners on base -- and got Justin Upton to fly out to shallow left. After that, not one Diamondbacks hitter would reach base against Kershaw, who completed his seven shutout innings by retiring the final 14 batters he faced. Overall, he allowed three hits and struck out seven.
He left with a 2-0 lead that quickly became 4-0 in the bottom of that seventh inning. There was the usual nailbiting performance by the bullpen before Kenley Jansen finally struck out Melvin Mora to end it with the tying and go-ahead runs on base, but the story was Kershaw, who had what both Barajas and manager Don Mattingly said was his best stuff in a long time.
This on an evening in which the Diamondbacks got runners to second and third with none out in the first and then loaded the bases in that fateful third.
"That (third inning) was huge," Mattingly said. "Again, he is that kind of guy. He knows he got himself into trouble there. His stuff was unbelievable. He had extra juice on his fastball, but it took him a while to get it honed in. In talking with (pitching coach Rick Honeycutt), he said that with power guys, sometimes they feel so good it's almost like they want to just let it go, but you have to harness it a little bit."
The first thing Kershaw had to harness after that third inning, though, was his emotions.
"You walk the pitcher on four pitches to lead off an inning, there are a lot of pitching no-nos right there," he said. "I was definitely frustrated with myself for that. I think I was overthrowing a little bit and missing up. After that, I needed to make it easier on myself. I was throwing a lot of pitches. I needed to step up my game a little bit.
"I definitely had to (man) up, I guess."
Barajas said it was possibly the first time this season in which Kershaw has had both his curveball and slider working at the same time, giving Kershaw a pitch to go to when he was behind in the count because the slider comes in looking like a fastball before dipping at the last instant. At least four of his strikeouts came on sliders in the dirt.
This arguably was Kershaw's best single-game performance of the season, but more than that, it was the continuation of a recent trend in which he has given up a total of three runs over 20 2/3 innings in his past three starts -- a strong indication that less than two months past his 23rd birthday, he is growing into his role as the clear anchor of the Dodgers' veteran-laden starting rotation.
Much has been made over the years of the fact the Dodgers drafted Kershaw three spots earlier than the San Francisco Giants took future two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum in the first round of the 2006 amateur draft. The mitigator there is that Kershaw was drafted out of high school and is three years younger than Lincecum.
Does that mean he is on the verge of being as good as Lincecum? Not necessarily. But what we saw against the Diamondbacks, from the end of that third inning on, was a pitcher who is wise beyond his years, one who not only can instantly recognize the need to take it up a few notches but also has the mental fortitude to actually do it.
Is he still a work in progress? Perhaps to some extent. But all the inconsistency of his first three major league seasons, the maddening fits and starts that kept him from being a true No. 1 starter, none of that has really shown up this year, at least not for any length of time. Kershaw is still learning all the time. But now, the Dodgers (19-20) -- who inched to within 2 1/2 games of the division lead in the National League West -- are learning quite a bit about him, too.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com