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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and James McDonald are thrown together by fate

The team's hopes rest with the two young pitchers, as Kershaw is expected to shine as a starter and McDonald to offer heat out of the bullpen.

March 09, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM PHOENIX — For the two most important Dodgers pitchers, the start of last season wasn't about Chavez Ravine, but Il Villagio.

That's the condo complex in Jacksonville, Fla., where Clayton Kershaw and James McDonald were roommates.

McDonald was the one who would awaken early and spend the morning playing video games on the living room television.

"Loud video games, two solid hours, every morning," said Kershaw with a sigh.

Kershaw was the one who would stay up late talking to his girlfriend on the telephone.

"They would talk all night; it was loud through the thin walls, I heard everything," said McDonald with a laugh.

Kershaw is a taciturn Texan, McDonald is a loud kid from Long Beach; they look different, they act different, they pitch different.

Inside, though, their motor runs the same.

And yeah, early or late, it runs loud.

Kershaw, still 20, struck out 100 major league hitters in 107 2/3 innings last year, jumping from double A to DEFCON 1.

"Last spring seems like 100 years ago," he said.

McDonald, 24, gave up no runs in 5 1/3 postseason innings after making the same huge leap at the end of the season.

"I don't think it hit me until somebody called this winter and asked me how I pitched Ryan Howard," he said. "I was like, wow, I really pitched to Ryan Howard?"

The wide eyes are narrower now. The uncertain steps have become purposeful strides.

The curveballs that Kershaw pulled out to stun hitters and viewers last spring -- remember Vin Scully waxing poetic when he rung up Boston's Sean Casey? -- are now commonplace.

The fastballs that McDonald used to strike out seven against the eventual world champion Philadelphia Phillies are now everywhere.

"The thing about us both is, we show no fear," McDonald said.

That strength was evident at Camelback Ranch on Sunday when Kershaw and McDonald pitched against the Chicago White Sox, offering at least one pretty little snapshot of the season.

Kershaw, starting, threw 2 2/3 scoreless innings, with two strikeouts, including a slow-curve whiff of Alexei Ramirez with runners on first and third with one out in the third inning.

"The kid is special," said Manager Joe Torre.

Exit one phenom, enter another, with McDonald running in from the bullpen in relief.

Three pitches later, he fooled Carlos Quentin into a groundout to end the inning.

"We don't have a role for him yet, but we know he's here," Torre said.

Although McDonald later gave up two runs after hitting a batter and giving up a bloop double, he showed fearlessness in other ways.

On a slow grounder to the right side of the mound by Corky Miller, McDonald overran the ball, came back, grabbed it, and flipped it underhand and behind his back to first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz.

Said McDonald: "Doug told me the best thing about it is that I didn't panic."

Fueled by memories of Kershaw and McDonald, the Dodgers didn't panic when they could not find an ace to add in the off-season pitching market.

They hope Kershaw can give them 200 innings in the rotation, and McDonald can give them that calm heat out of the bullpen.

I figure Kershaw eventually has ace stuff, while McDonald could end up being the fifth starter by June.

Kershaw needs to trust his new changeup, McDonald needs to work on his two-seam fastball, but it's possible that these two kids could stand strong enough to carry the Dodgers into fall.

"I've seen young pitchers act like a golden child, walking around like they have it all figured out, kids with a big chip on their shoulder," said Randy Wolf. "Neither of these guys are like that."

Perhaps that's because neither guy grew up in an environment where baseball players mattered.

Kershaw, from a suburb of Dallas, spent his winter in the usual anonymity.

"Nobody ever recognizes me," he said. "Where I'm from, everyone plays football."

McDonald, who attended football factory Long Beach Poly High, grew up hearing a similar refrain.

"People would say, 'You play baseball? You're a nerd,' " he said.

By the time they both made it to the big leagues last season, well, they still weren't known, with both men being recognized only once.

McDonald, who was spotted in a fast-food Chinese place in Long Beach, was so surprised, he thought he was being accosted.

"Some guy walked in the place and yelled, 'You play for the Dodgers?' " McDonald recalled. "I thought he was trying to pick a fight."

So McDonald did what every future Dodgers star would do when finally recognized in the home of his hometown team.

He, um, denied it?

"Well, yeah, I told him 'no,' because I really thought he wanted to start a fight," McDonald said.

As McDonald was leaving the restaurant, the fan shouted, "You're a liar!"

The dude knew. This year, everyone could know.

Clayton Kershaw could keep more than James McDonald up at night. And James McDonald could awaken a lot more than Clayton Kershaw.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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