Tuesday, April 02, 2013

More On The Amazing Clayton Kershaw And His Historic Opening Day

Kershaw unloads, Giants get snowed.

Via Buster Olney's latest article (insider only):

FROM ELIAS: Kershaw was the first starting pitcher to hit a home run in the eighth inning or later of a scoreless game since Sept. 16, 1971, when the Cubs' Juan Pizzarro hit one off Tom Seaver in the eighth inning to give the Cubs a 1-0 triumph at Shea Stadium.

Kershaw joined Don Drysdale as the only pitcher to hit a home run and get the win on Opening Day in the expansion era, which began in 1961. Drysdale did it in 1965 against the Mets.

Kershaw also joined Fernando Valenzuela (1981), Don Sutton (1974) and Koufax (1964) as the only Dodgers to throw complete game shutouts on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium.

The main part of Olney's article is a nice feature piece on how Kershaw has added a slider. Here's the skinny:

LOS ANGELES -- The first time Clayton Kershaw threw a slider with intent to do damage, about four years ago, A.J. Ellis was asked to catch him in the bullpen. Kershaw did what Kershaw always does, which is to develop a plan and carry it out. This is an athlete who has consistently worked through the same conditioning and weight-lifting regimen for years on his own without needing the nudge of a personal trainer.

Before he and Ellis started the bullpen session, he told Ellis how he intended to throw the pitch and where he wanted Ellis to set his target. Kershaw spun the first slider and the movement was explosive, sharp and downward. He tried another and the same thing happened, the ball veering sharply as it got to the plate. Kershaw glanced in at Ellis for confirmation and the catcher nodded back at him, the body language screaming, Yes, those were really, really good.

The reason why Kershaw and the Dodgers decided to add a slider was because they thought he needed another pitch to keep the hitters honest and prevent them from waiting on his fastball. Kershaw had a great curveball and a decent changeup, but hitters had taken to ignoring his off-speed pitches.

So Kershaw needed something different, something at a higher velocity, like a slider -- for Kershaw, this worked for him, immediately. Before Monday's game, Giants first baseman Brandon Belt chatted at his locker about Kershaw and noted that with most pitchers, the hitter can narrow his focus and anticipate one or two pitches in particular spots. "But with Kershaw, you have to worry about four pitches," said Belt, referring to Kershaw's full menu of options.

His breaking pitches were really good in the season opener -- right from the time he threw his first warmups, Ellis said -- and time after time, Giants hitters either watched as he threw strikes with the breaking stuff early in the count or flailed at pitches just out of the zone (see table).

So good was Kershaw that he needed just 71 pitches through the first seven innings, making it an easy decision for manager Don Mattingly to let the left-hander bat to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning. With his pitch count under control, Kershaw was going to pitch the ninth.

But nobody would have ever figured that it would be Kershaw who would give himself the lead. He had no homers in his first 334 plate appearances in the big leagues, and in fact, his last homer in a game had come in a spring training game on his 21st birthday, something that Ellis reminded him of constantly.

When Kershaw leaned into his swing on George Kontos' first pitch, the Dodgers' dugout froze for an instant as the ball zoomed toward center field. And then it turned into pandemonium, with some of Kershaw's teammates shouting about how the home run had gone to the deepest part of the ballpark.

Sandy Koufax had thrown the first pitch of the day, in the energetic pregame ceremonies, and after Clayton Kershaw threw the last, Ellis remarked that the whole day had felt like a passing of a torch, one great Dodgers lefty to another.

But on Tuesday, Kershaw will be at the park early to do his work, as if Monday's historic outing -- he was the first pitcher to hit a home run in the midst of an Opening Day shutout since Bob Lemon in 1953 -- never happened. Four days from now, he'll be back to pacing the clubhouse before a game, slamming a baseball from his left hand into his glove.

Olney also has a link to a Henry Schulman article that starts with Matt Cain, but all comes down to Kershaw:

With more than seven years of perspective as a major-leaguer and two World Series titles, Matt Cain could step back from the frustration and nothingness of the Giants' 4-0 loss to the Dodgers and reflect on his first Opening Day start.

"It was great to have," Cain said. "I've seen some guys do it, and I wondered what it felt like. There's always a lot of hype, maybe a little over-reporting leading up to the game. But that's the fun part of it. It was a great experience. I enjoyed it."

Not as much as Clayton Kershaw, though. The registered Giants-nemesis, who is expected soon to sign an eleventy-gazillion-dollar contract extension, had the game of a lifetime Monday as he spoiled

San Francisco's opener at Dodger Stadium for the second time in three seasons.

He broke a 0-0 tie when he hit George Kontos' first pitch of the eighth inning over the center-field wall for his first home run since high school, other than one he hit in spring training four years ago, to launch a four-run inning.

Kershaw then trotted to the mound to a deafening ovation from 53,138 fans and completed a four-hitter so dominant that only one Giant, Pablo Sandoval, reached second base, in the first inning. [...]

The Giants' bullpen unraveled after Kershaw's home run. Kontos and Santiago Casilla together put three more Dodgers on base, and all scored.

photo: Jae C. Hong, Associated Press