CINCINNATI — From the time Clayton Kershaw showed up in the Dodgers' spring-training camp as a 19-year-old, there were signals he was destined for stardom that went beyond his electric fastball and knee-buckling curveball.
There was something inside that distinguished him from the other players.
That something was on display for a national television audience Sunday night, when Kershaw took the ball and his injured right hip to the mound at Great American Ball Park.
Kershaw's performance in a 5-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds was far from his most dominant, but was among his most courageous.
Pitching on 12 days' rest, he was uncharacteristically wild, walking a season-high five batters. He allowed 11 Reds to reach base. But in the five tumultuous innings he pitched, only one run scored.
That set the stage for a four-run seventh inning that won the game and sustained his team's fading postseason ambitions. With Adrian Gonzalez hitting two home runs, the Dodgers remained three games back of the St. Louis Cardinals for the second of two National League wild-card playoff spots. The Dodgers have nine games left, the next one in San Diego on Tuesday.
The decision to start Kershaw came after much deliberation on the part of the Dodgers' decision makers.
Even after the team was convinced Kershaw was pain-free and wouldn't do further damage to his hip by pitching, Manager Don Mattingly remained cautious. He scrapped his previous plans to start backup Matt Treanor at catcher, figuring A.J. Ellis would be quicker to notice if something was wrong with Kershaw.
Ellis had reservations about his close friend pitching.
"Honestly, I was not 100% on board with him doing this," Ellis said. "This is our ace, this is our future."
But Ellis never voiced the full extent of his objections to Kershaw. He knew it was pointless.
Kershaw's determination is something Mattingly said he hasn't seen in his 30-plus years in the major leagues. "That pursuit of excellence is not matched," Mattingly said. "I don't know if I've seen anybody quite like that."
In Mattingly's estimation, the only player who can be compared to Kershaw in that regard is New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter.
The Reds loaded the bases in the first inning, but Kershaw wouldn't let them score.
Cincinnati's only run against him came in the third, when Kershaw walked the first two batters and gave up a run-scoring single to Todd Frazier. There were men on first and second with no outs at that point, but Kershaw induced Miguel Cairo to ground into a double play and struck out Denis Phipps to prevent anyone else from scoring, keeping the score 1-1.
The Reds again loaded the bases in the fourth inning, but Kershaw struck out former NL most valuable player Joey Votto to escape unscathed.
"He's one of the top three pitchers in the game," Gonzalez said. "He's going out there doing it gutsy, obviously not feeling 100%. It's unbelievable."
Gonzalez's leadoff homer started a four-run seventh inning to move the Dodgers ahead, 5-1. The Reds scored two in the eighth but Brandon League pitched the ninth for his fifth save.
"It was a big win, we needed it," Kershaw said.
Kershaw blamed his wildness on inactivity and not anything health-related. He said he hoped to make as many as two more starts this season, but immediately backtracked.
"Right now, I'm just seeing how I feel tomorrow," he said. "I think that's everybody's mentality right now. We'll make a decision from there, I'm sure."