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Clayton Kershaw and the expectations of absolute greatness

June 16, 2012|By Steve Dilbeck
  • Clayton Kershaw pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Clayton Kershaw pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies. (Hunter Martin / Getty Images )

People don't expect much of Clayton Kershaw, just total dominance. A brush with perfection every fifth game. Just Sandy Koufax incarnate.

When you win the National League Cy Young Award at 23, as he did last season, expectations tend to rise.

So if he stumbles, as Kershaw has in his last four starts (5.26 earned-run average), eyebrows rise, breaths get short, panic attacks take hold. And then, of course, there's his sore foot.

It's not like the left-hander has been terrible of late, he just hasn't been Kershaw-esque. Or at least, that vision most now have of Kershaw shutting down every hitter so badly they all but sulk their way back to the dugout.

"I think definitely the expectations are higher, but personally I have pretty high expectations for myself," Kershaw said. "So other people's opinions don't really affect me. If people have high expectations that just means they think you're a pretty good pitcher. You have to take it as a compliment."

Which is easier to do when he's throwing lights out and putting up double digits in strikeouts every start.

"It's hard when you go through periods where you struggle," he said. "I guess it's never easy not to live up to your own expectations, let alone other people's. At the same time, I feel like you have to look at what made you successful in the past and continue to try and grind it out."

Overall, Kershaw's numbers actually compare very favorably at this point in the season (5-3, 2.86 ERA, 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings) to where he was after 14 games last season (6-3, 3.44, 10.0).

Of course, he was 12-1 with a 1.31 ERA in the second half last season.

"Obviously, expectations are huge for me, but it's probably not realistic to go 12-1 every second half," Kershaw said. "I'm not expecting to do that, I'm just trying to give our team a chance.

"The biggest thing to do is to not look at the big picture. Take it one day at a time. I know that's a cliche, but when you start looking ahead and thinking about all the things you have to do, it makes it difficult. That's why I always try and simplify it and just win."

Which has been more of a challenge the last few starts, starts that happen to correspond with when he started battling plantar fasciitis — pain in the tendon that goes from the heel to the toes — in his left foot. That's the foot Kershaw has to pivot and push off on, but he insists the foot only bothers him when he runs.

"I can only go by what he tells me," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "It's somewhat coincidental that during this stretch that's happened.

"I do not see it changing his mechanics or delivery. He is still pretty much the same. But to say there's not a pitch sometimes during the game that he feels something, I can only go by what he tells me."

Players are renowned for not always being completely forthright about injuries, or the degree of injury. Then the next week, they're having surgery.

Dodgers trainer Sue Falsone said Kershaw has been stretching his calf and heel, and using a night splint while he sleeps. Still, the No.1 treatment for plantar fasciitis is rest. Which right now, is a tad tough to accomplish.

"Yeah, midseason, very impossible to do that," Falsone said. "I hate plantar fasciitis."

Falsone said she did not think Kershaw was in danger of completely rupturing the tendon while continuing to play on it.

"If we thought he was in danger, he wouldn't be out there," she said. "He does feel better now that when he first had it."

Kershaw is still throwing hard, so the Dodgers have little choice but to trust him when he says the foot doesn't bark when he throws.

"I'm not stupid," he said. "This thing is something I can pitch with, because it doesn't hurt pitching. It's not affecting my mechanics. I know once I alter my mechanics, I put myself in danger of hurting other things."

sports@latimes.com

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