09/30/09 10:00 AM EST
Path of the Pros: Clayton Kershaw
Former first-rounder progressed quickly through Minors
By John Torenli / Special to MLB.com
The accidental collision was one of the few things that has slowed the 21-year-old left-hander's meteoric progression as a potentially dominant pitcher in the Major Leagues.
Kershaw, who has already proven himself to be one of Dodgers manager Joe Torre's more reliable starters over the past two seasons, will likely find himself pitching in his second straight postseason come October -- an impressive achievement considering he was still honing his craft at Double-A Jacksonville as recently as July 2008.
Los Angeles' first-round pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft out of Highland Park High School in Dallas separated his right shoulder while shagging fly balls at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 6.
After taking nearly three weeks to recover from the injury, Kershaw pitched two hitless innings of relief in his return to the hill Tuesday night in Washington.
Fortunately for the 6-foot-3, 225-pound southpaw, his days of taking outfield practice appear to be over.
"I'm never shagging again," Kershaw admitted after nearly costing himself a spot in the Dodgers' postseason rotation.
But knowing Kershaw, who is 13-13 with a 3.42 ERA in 51 career big league appearances, including 49 starts, he won't take long to prove himself worthy of taking the ball for Los Angeles when the season's on the line in a few weeks.
Torre announced Thursday that Kershaw would make his first start since Sept. 4 in Pittsburgh on Sunday, giving the young lefty a shot to earn a playoff start.
Kershaw's rapid ascent from high school phenom to Major League starter began at Highland Park, where he earned the honor of 2005-'06 Gatorade National Baseball Player of the Year.
As a senior under former Highland Park head coach Lew Kennedy, Kershaw went a phenomenal 13-0 with an 0.77 ERA and 139 strikeouts in only 64 innings -- the type of numbers big league scouts drool over.
After pitching his school into the Texas Class 4A Region II Finals, the former three-time All-District performer and two-time District MVP tossed a perfect game in a quarterfinal win over Justin Northeast on May 19, 2006.
But Kershaw wasn't just perfect that day, he was literally untouchable, striking out all 15 batters he faced en route to capping his four-year stint with a school-record 38 wins, not to mention a 3.7 GPA in the classroom.
"Clayton has electric stuff on the mound," Kennedy said after Kershaw received the honor. "He competes well and has a knack for getting strikeouts in tough situations. He is a humble young man, who is a great role model for our team and community."
All that wasn't lost on the Dodgers, who grabbed Kershaw with the seventh overall pick in June 2006. To say that the talented southpaw, who turned down a scholarship offer from Texas A&M to pitch in the Minors, has delivered on their faith in him would be an understatement.
Kershaw got his first taste of pro baseball with the Gulf Coast League Dodgers that summer and went unbeaten in 10 appearances, including eight starts, while striking out 54 batters and allowing only 28 hits in 37 innings.
Then-GCL Dodgers manager and current Great Lakes Loons skipper Juan Bustabad was the first to get a look at Kershaw in the pros, and his impressions of the hard-throwing phenom pointed to an extremely bright future.
"He was a very open-minded kid and worked very hard," Bustabad recalled. "We were working on his changeup and breaking ball. He overpowered the kids in the GCL with his fastball, but we were trying to get him to be more consistent with his breaking pitches.
"Clayton was more advanced than your normal high school kid. You knew he was a special. A left-handed pitcher throwing 95, 96 miles per hour. All the tools were there, and he's a tough kid mentally. I knew he would make it to the big leagues fast."
But even Bustabad couldn't have imagined that Kershaw was less than two years away from making his big league debut when he finished up his GCL campaign that August.
After splitting the 2007 season between Class A Great Lakes and Jacksonville, Kershaw needed only 13 appearances with the Suns in 2008 to prove himself worthy of a shot with the parent club.
Though he did not receive a decision in his Major League debut against St. Louis on May 25, 2008, the lanky Texan allowed two runs on five hits and a walk with seven strikeouts over six innings.
He would finish his first year in the Majors with a 5-5 record and 4.26 ERA over 22 outings, including 21 starts, featuring a nasty curveball that Hall of Fame Dodgers announcer Vin Scully dubbed, "Public Enemy No. 1."
That October, Kershaw allowed a run on one hit and two walks with one strikeout over two innings in a pair of relief appearances before the Dodgers bowed out to eventual World Series champion Philadelphia in the National League Championship Series.
His focus now is to help strengthen a deep, but somewhat inconsistent Dodgers rotation for a run at the franchise's first World Series crown since 1988.
"The way I see it, hopefully I can get a start here in the next couple of weeks, prove myself a little bit," Kershaw said after his two-inning outing Tuesday. "I can give us six starters out there who can compete, because the other five are doing a great job."
2006: Kershaw finished 2-0 with one save and a 1.95 ERA for the GCL Dodgers, yielding one earned run or fewer in all but two of his 10 outings. He struck out 21 batters over 11 innings during a dominant two-start stretch from July 29-Aug. 3 against the GCL Nationals and Marlins respectively.
2007: In his second pro season, Kershaw began piling up the accolades. He was named a Midwest League All-Star and All-Star Futures Game Selection while going 7-5 with a 2.77 ERA in 20 starts for Great Lakes before a five-start Jacksonville run that saw him go 1-2 with a 3.65 ERA.
2008: Kershaw went 2-3 with a 1.91 ERA in 13 appearances, including 11 starts, for the Suns before joining the Dodgers on a full-time basis in late July. Tabbed Los Angeles' top prospect by Baseball America that year, Kershaw made his final Minor League appearance on July 17 against West Tenn, firing five scoreless innings of of one-hit ball.
John Torenli is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.