LOS ANGELES -- On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw had a memorable start to his Major League career, doing almost everything that has been expected of him. Everything, that is, except for picking up the win, but the Dodgers ultimately pushed across a run in the bottom of the 10th, beating the Cardinals, 4-3, before 46,566 at Dodger Stadium.
Kershaw's big league debut was something the fans have been waiting for since he was drafted seventh overall by the Dodgers in 2006. In the two years since, the 20-year-old has done nothing to dampen expectations, including striking out 264 in just over 202 Minor League innings.
While fans' expectations might have been unrealistically high, expecting nothing short of perfection his first time out, Kershaw's performance exceeded almost anything the Dodgers could have hoped for.
"Youngsters today just seem to have no doubt that they should be here," manager Joe Torre observed before the game.
While Torre, pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and the rest of Dodgers management believe that they have something special, they are also realistic regarding what it takes to turn a young phenom into a dependable Major League pitcher.
Torre's instructions to Kershaw were simple, "I told him to go out and don't try to do anymore than he can do."
For Kershaw it all seemed to be second nature.
"I wasn't really as nervous as I expected to be," he admitted.
That showed, when he struck out Skip Schumaker swinging to begin his Major League career, and it made the fans felt that there wasn't anything Kershaw couldn't do. That feeling came back to earth a little, when he walked the next batter and saw him come around to score on a double by Albert Pujols.
After he struck out the next two batters to end the first, however, it was apparent to all just what Kershaw brings to the mound.
"I thought he was terrific, showed a lot of poise. Everything we could have asked for," said Torre.
In the bottom of the first, another Dodgers rookie, Luis Maza, whose profile has been the antithesis of Kershaw's, hit his first big league homer, evening the score at 1. While fans might not have been waiting anxiously for Maza's arrival, seven hits in his first 14 at-bats is certainly getting himself noticed.
"You need role players," Torre said, "and he's doing everything you could ask for."
Over the next four innings Kershaw faced one batter over the minimum, striking out three while allowing just two singles.
Kershaw also showed Torre that he was able to follow instructions.
"The one thing we told him when we sent him out to Double-A," Torre said, "was that we wanted him to use his offspeed pitches. We wanted him to be a pitcher and use everything as if he was getting himself ready for here."
Mission accomplished as catcher Russell Martin found out quickly.
"He shook me off once because he wanted to throw a changeup. I guess he wanted to prove to me that he had a good one. I started calling it more after that. He proved it."
With a 2-1 lead, provided by an RBI double from Russell Martin in the fourth, Kershaw ran into his only real trouble of the day, as Brian Barton singled with one out and Pujols followed with a single of his own to put runners on the corners. It was at that point that Kershaw displayed a bit more of his makeup. He got Ryan Ludwick to hit into a fielders choice, on which third baseman Blake DeWitt was unable to make the play at home, and then retired the next two batters to end the inning, the threat and his first Major League appearance.
Kershaw had a chance to end the day as a winner as Martin drove in his second run of the day in the bottom of the sixth, to put the Dodgers ahead 3-2. Unfortunately for Kershaw, the bullpen wasn't able to protect the lead as a walk, stolen base, throwing error by Martin and sacrifice fly in the top of the seventh tied the score at 3.
Ultimately, it was up to another of the young Dodgers as Andre Either singled with two outs in the bottom of the 10th to score Juan Pierre with the game-winning run.
While Kershaw was the first to say that all that mattered was that the team won, what really matted in the long run was the lift that Kershaw gave to the team.
Before the game, Torre made it clear what he was hoping for.
"Just early on I'd like him to throw strikes. Go out there and send his emotions in the right direction -- have them work for him."
Of the 102 pitches Kershaw threw, the most he's thrown in a game this season, 69 were for strikes. More importantly, he was in control the entire time he was out there.
"He's got electric stuff," Martin said the young pitcher after the game.
"A left hander who throws 96 with a snapdragon curveball and a nasty changeup. Not a lot of guys have that kind of stuff in the Majors.
Or as Torre said more succinctly, "He's the real deal."