Bryan Altman, CBS Local Sports
(Editor’s Note: In this segment we’ll be taking a look back at some of the greatest athletes of this generation and how it went down for them on their first day as a professional player in their sport.)
Clayton Kershaw’s path to becoming the preeminent starting pitcher in Major League Baseball began as auspiciously as you might imagine it would have. His tale bears no resemblance to the zero-to-hero narrative that Disney movies are made of. He was a top 10 draft selection, he threw a “mercy rule” all-strikeout perfect game in high school, and has generally just been really, really good for a really long time.
Even long before he made his major league debut, he was anointed by many as the savior of the Los Angeles Dodgers. With a curveball that defies the laws of gravity (that the great Vin Scully would describe as “Public Enemy No. 1″), a fastball in the mid-upper 90s, and an uncanny command over the strike zone, it’s easy to see why Kershaw was a pretty safe bet to do basically everything that he’s done in his career thus far.
When Kershaw took to the mound at Dodger Stadium for his first start on May 25, 2008, the sports world watched with eager anticipation to see whether the next proclaimed pitching wunderkind was going to live up to the hype. 100 wins later, we decided to take a look back and see how it all went down on Clayton Kershaw’s “First Day On The Job.”
Even the most highly-touted prospects in all sports come with some questions and Kershaw was no different. BaseballProspectus.com ranked all of the Dodgers prospects in February of 2008 and listed Kershaw as No. 1. However, at least one scout said that Kershaw had to work on his command.
“He struggles at times with his command, and he doesn’t compensate for it well, often grooving hittable fastball when he falls behind in the count. He needs to find more confidence in his changeup and mix it into his arsenal more often.”
Still, the hype surrounding Kershaw’s debut was palpable.
Dodgers writer Tony Jackson wrote that Kershaw’s debut was the most anticipated start by a Dodgers pitcher since Hideo Nomo in 1995.
The baseball world was more than ready to see whether Kershaw could be the second-coming of Sandy Koufax as many had hoped.
The Game – May 25, 2008 – 1:05 p.m. PT – Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, CA
Kershaw started the game with a strikeout of future Dodger teammate Skip Schumaker, a great start for the young lefty. But like many before him, Kershaw fell victim to Albert Pujols later in the first inning. Pujuols lined an RBI double off of Kershaw to give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead in Kershaw’s first inning in the majors. Still, Kershaw rallied back and finished the game allowing only one more run while striking out six more batters in six innings of work.
Here’s Kershaw’s final stat line from that Sunday afternoon:
IP – 6.0, H – 5, R – 2, ER – 2, BB – 1, SO – 7, HR – 0
The Dodgers won that game 4-3 but Kershaw received a no decision. Not a bad result for a 20-year-old rookie pitcher against a team that hasn’t had a losing record since Kershaw entered the league in 2008.
“I was pretty calm,” Kershaw said. “I didn’t expect to be, but it wasn’t too bad. I got all that out of the way in spring training. It might be hard to believe, but I really wasn’t that nervous. I just knew that I could do it. These hitters are just like other hitters, except a little better and a little more experienced. So you’ve got to be smart.” [ESPN]
“He’s a young kid with good stuff. There’s no doubt about it,” said Glaus, “He threw a lot of fastballs, but he threw everything. He had good life on his fastball and we weren’t able to do anything with it.” [ESPN]
“He was tough,” Ludwick said. “There aren’t too many lefties throwing 95, 96, 97. He’s got that big curveball. He’s pretty good. I got some fastballs to hit, but I missed them. When a guy has that tough stuff, you can’t miss pitches.” [MLB]
“I thought he was terrific, showed a lot of poise. Everything we could have asked for,” said Torre. [MLB]
“He’s got electric stuff,” catcher Russell Martin said. “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.” [MLB]
After his first start it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for Kershaw for the rest of the year. According to Yahoo! Sports, Kershaw walked 5.59 batters per nine innings in his eight starts that year to go along with his 4.42 ERA, which resulted in him being sent back down to the AA Jacksonville squad on July 2nd.
Still, Kershaw would return later that year to the big leagues and wouldn’t look back.
He boasts a career 100-51 record, a microscopic 2.54 ERA to go along with 1,511 strikeouts. That’s why it’s not a stretch to say that Kershaw is the best pitcher of his generation and that he might even find himself listed among the all-time greats by the time he calls it quits. At 27-year-old, his best might still be yet to come. For someone who’s won three Cy Young awards, an MVP award, has been to four all-star games and just won his 100th career MLB game, that’s a scary thought.
More from Bryan? You can email him or find him on Twitter @bcaltman.