PHOENIX -- Clayton Kershaw wasn't surprised Wednesday when Don Mattingly named the left-hander the Dodgers' Opening Day starting pitcher, because Mattingly told Kershaw he would almost as soon as he was named manager in September.

"We talked last year before the season ended, and he asked if I thought I'd be ready for it," said Kershaw. "It's exciting. It's good to know I have a set date. When the schedule came out, I saw we were playing the Giants, [Tim] Lincecum. It should be fun.

"I don't take it lightly. It's a sign of recognition by the manager, an acknowledgment given to you. It's something I feel honored to get."

Mattingly, speaking to reporters on the day pitchers and catchers reported, said he made the decision pretty much as soon as he was introduced as Joe Torre's successor Sept. 17.

"I'd hook Clayton Kershaw up with anybody," said Mattingly. "He loves the challenge. You just see him get better and better. We saw the confidence early, when he first came into camp at Vero [Beach in 2008]. You don't want to put him into somebody else's category, that's not really fair. But he has the ability to be something special."

Mattingly stopped short of calling Kershaw his staff ace, although it's hard to consider him anything else, even though the rotation is loaded with accomplished starters -- Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda, Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla, last year's Opening Day starter and tentatively a swingman this year.

"I like our pitching," said Mattingly. "I don't want to sit and talk about one guy."

Nonetheless, only one guy will be starting when the season opens March 31, and it will be Kershaw. He'll be 23 next month, making him the youngest Dodgers Opening Day starting pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela, who was 22 when he opened the 1983 season.

In only his second full Major League season, Kershaw went 13-10 with a 2.91 ERA last year, with 212 strikeouts in 204 1/3 innings. He was one of 12 pitchers in the Majors to have more than 200 innings pitched and strikeouts last year. He led the club with 23 quality starts, was fifth in the league with a .214 opponents batting average and held lefties to a .200 average.

Only two left-handers have had more strikeouts in a season in franchise history -- Sandy Koufax (1961-66) and Valenzuela (1984 and 1986).

With a 100-pitch limit lifted, he tossed his first career complete game and shutout against the Giants with a four-hitter. More importantly he allowed a career-low 3.6 walks per nine innings.

"It was a disappointing year for us as a team," said Kershaw. "At the end of the day, it's a lot more rewarding what you do as a team."

Kershaw had a busy winter. He was married, then left with wife Ellen on her annual goodwill mission to Zambia.

"That was an eye-opening experience," he said. "You realize how much you have and what other people don't have. It was pretty cool. They are happy as long as they have their basic needs met. Everybody here strives for more, but that shows it's not necessarily the case."