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Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw keeps the faith

DODGERS

Pitcher says his religious beliefs are among the factors that have contributed to his maturity and success.

February 28, 2010|By Dylan Hernandez

Reporting from Phoenix — Clayton Kershaw might still be a couple weeks away from his 22nd birthday, but veteran catcher Brad Ausmus said that the Dodgers left-hander is already doing something that he has seen only one other pitcher do.

That pitcher was Roger Clemens.

So when Ausmus was asked why Kershaw has been so dominant so early in his career -- a 2.79 earned-run average that ranked fifth in the National League last season -- he started to talk about the Kershaw's bullpen sessions.

"A lot of young guys with bullpens, they're just going to throw and throw, throw and throw and throw their pitches until it feels right," Ausmus said. "The pitching coach usually has to drag them off the rubber. Clayton sticks to his routine regardless of how he feels and he sticks to that routine every single bullpen. When he's done, he steps off the mound.

"The only guy I've ever seen do that is Clemens."

In addition to a mid-90s fastball and what Manager Joe Torre calls a "cross-your-eyes-type curveball," the third-year pitcher has what Ausmus said was a uniquely mature perspective.

"He certainly understands that baseball is not a sprint," Ausmus said. "It's not a sprint over the course of one season and it's certainly not a sprint over the course of one's career. He understands that improvements are incremental. You're not going to generally catch lightning in a bottle by throwing a 100-pitch bullpen. The big picture is you're probably throwing too many pitches and it's probably costing you more than you're gaining."

(Ausmus snickered as he recalled his own days of youth, saying, "I was the young guy who kept hitting in the cage until I hit my way into a slump.")

Anecdotes like Ausmus' can be heard in all parts of the clubhouse. About how Kershaw understands that failure can result in progress. Or how his self-belief never wavers in the wake of an occasional loss of command.

The way Kershaw describes it, his ability to put various elements of the game in perspective is a byproduct of his ability to put the importance of the game in perspective.

His top priority in life, he said, is his Christian faith. Second, his family and friends.

Baseball ranks third on his list.

"Baseball's just temporary," he said. "Don't get me wrong, I love baseball. I'm very thankful for the opportunity that I have. I have so much fun playing the game. But I know, at the same time, that there's a whole other eternal life for me."

Kershaw doesn't go out of his way to talk about his faith. On the field, he doesn't point to the sky in his moments of triumph or make any other kind of exaggerated gesture.

"I love to talk about it, but I like to let the actions dictate and let people ask questions from there," he said.

His approach to his spirituality sounds a lot like his approach to baseball, that is, he understands it's a gradual process.

Raised in suburban Dallas, he said his family went to church every Sunday but that religion didn't dominate dinner conversations. He was confirmed Methodist when he was in middle school.

His spiritual transformation came in high school.

"It wasn't one day," he said. "Christianity in itself means that you believe Jesus died on the cross for your sins. It wasn't until high school that I was mature enough to understand what that meant and how I should live my life based on that."

Los Angeles might have a faster pace of life and offer more temptations than Texas, but Kershaw said he has found his own form of peace there.

"The thing I found about L.A. is that you can make it as crazy as you want to or you can make it as tranquil as you want to," he said. "You just have to find that balance that works for you. I go to the field, do my work, go home and hang out. I'm not hitting up the night life too much out there."

Kershaw said he doesn't pretend to know what's right for everyone and that he's still learning.

"Some things in the Bible you can take literally and other things you kind of have to interpret for yourself," Kershaw said. "That's why there are Christians that have different understanding of the Bible. You have to live your life based on what you think is the best interpretation of it."

Over the winter, Kershaw proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Ellen Melsen, whom he started dating in his freshman year of high school. This summer, Melsen will make her fourth religious mission trip to Africa, a cause for which Kershaw once held a baseball camp to raise money. The couple will marry in December.

"He's really stable," Hiroki Kuroda said. "I couldn't say I was that way when I was his age."

Kershaw's teammates say that he appears comfortable with who he is.

"He takes harassment and ribbing very well," Ausmus said. "He can laugh at himself. He continues to smile as you're poking fun at him."

That doesn't mean he doesn't have ambitions. Or that he isn't competitive.

"He wants to be great," catcher Russell Martin said.

"He certainly has that concentration on game day, that focus that you see in successful pitchers, guys like Clemens and Randy Johnson," Ausmus said. "On game day, they get that look in their eyes."

With the Dodgers taking a fiscally conservative approach on the free-agent market this winter and failing to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, Kershaw might be the closest thing they have to an ace.

By the estimation of almost everyone in camp, Kershaw has the stuff. And he has the mind-set.

"To me, he's so ahead of the curve," Ausmus said. "The next step involves experience. Unfortunately, there's only one way to get experience. But as quickly as he's able to gather the information, process it and use it, his experience is usually a lot more valuable than it would be for most players."

dylan.hernandez@

latimes.com

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