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02/23/10 12:57 PM EST

Kershaw looking ahead to life without limits

Young left-hander hopes pitch count is thing of the past

PHOENIX -- Clayton Kershaw is too polite to make demands, so on his behalf, we'll pass along this request to Dodgers management:

Lose the pitch counter.

"This year I don't think there should be that 100-pitch thing," Kershaw said of the limit imposed on his workload each start. "If there was a pitch count last year, I think this year there should be no restrictions, no holds barred, I should pitch as long as I can. That's what I'm hoping for. That's just what I feel."

Kershaw is making progress with an organization that has so far protected his valuable young arm.

"That came up in the staff meeting," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "I'm not saying we'll take the gloves off, but at the same time, we feel much better about how he bounced back and stayed strong and consistent through last season. We're in a situation where we feel we can loosen the reins a little bit and slowly increase him."

Kershaw went 8-8 with 14 no-decisions last year. He threw 171 innings, plus another 13 1/3 in the playoffs. The won-lost record was deceiving, as he posted a 2.79 ERA over his last 10 starts but went a tough-luck 0-3. After April, when he was 0-2 with a 7.29 ERA, his ERA was a dominating 2.22. He led the Majors on the season in opposing average (.200) and slugging percentage (.282).

The 2.79 ERA put Kershaw in rare company, as he joined Ralph Branca, Don Drysdale, Fernando Valenzuela and Don Sutton as the only Dodgers in the modern era to rank in the top 10 for National League ERA at age 21 or younger.

That's right, 21. Kershaw's already appeared in the League Championship Series two years running, so it's easy to forget that he doesn't turn 22 until March -- unless you remember his rookie mistake. He separated his non-throwing shoulder by running into the outfield fence while shagging balls in batting practice and missed three weeks of the race in September.

Nonetheless, he's just as likely to be named the Opening Day starter and become the de facto ace as anybody.

Manager Joe Torre tipped his hand during the 2009 playoffs, when he had Kershaw prepared to replace Randy Wolf for an NLDS Game 4 start against the Cardinals that turned out to be unnecessary, and then started Kershaw in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Phillies.

"He's ... not afraid to be the guy," Torre said recently. "I'm reluctant to say No. 1; they're all important. I'll stay away from figuring how far he came and how much further he can go. He's still only 21. Last year he could get waxed and still want the ball. There's a lot in that young man, stuff aside, that makes him very special."

Kershaw understands that his performances during the season were as responsible for his early hooks as his birthdate.

Youngest starting pitchers in Dodgers history
Pitcher Age Year
Joe Moeller 19 years, 62 days 1962
Dick Calmus 19 years, 228 days 1963
Edwin Jackson 20 years, 0 days 2003
Clayton Kershaw 20 years, 67 days 2008
Mike Kekich 20 years, 68 days 1965

"Last year there wasn't any time where I felt I got pulled early, it was because I felt like I hadn't pitched well enough to stay in the game," he said. "Maybe this year I've proved myself so that if I get in a tight spot or jams, they'll let me stay in the game longer. It's that way with everybody -- 100 pitches should get you seven or eight innings, if not a whole game."

In less than two seasons, Kershaw is 13-13, yet at times he is compared with the all-time greats in terms of tools and potential. Just how good can he be?

"Ceiling? There is no ceiling," said Honeycutt, who pitched with Valenzuela. "Look at his year. Take April out, and he was pretty awesome. Of course, there's still room for improvement. He needs to condense his pitch count. That's the toughest part when you're capable of striking people out, learning that a well-placed pitch can get a ground ball earlier in the count and you stay in the game longer.

"But he has to prove to other teams that he can get ahead in the count and force them to swing the bats. Other teams are trying to do to him what [hitting coach Don Mattingly] is getting our hitters to do. They work the count to get him out of the game. That's why there's a stressing on the changeup."

For his part, Kershaw knows that he's fully responsible for his high pitch counts.

"What I want to do is learn how to minimize my pitches. The way to do that is by fastball command, that's huge for me," he said. "I worked on that a lot this offseason by making my bullpen [sessions] as game-like as possible. Last year my bullpens were just practice, to make sure my arm felt right.

"This year the focus is on game situations so my fastball command is something I can always rely on when my other pitches aren't going great. I need to throw breaking pitches over for strikes. Even though I'm not a master of the changeup by any means, that pitch can really get you out of there with as few pitches as possible. If I minimize my pitches, there won't be a focus on how many pitches I've thrown."

Kershaw said that the high points of last season for him were pitching the game against the Rockies that gave the Dodgers the division title and his Game 2 playoff start vs. the Cardinals. The low point was his team's loss to Philadelphia.

"It's not even Game 1, when I pitched badly," he said. "[It was] Game 5, I thought, just losing as a team. Individually, it doesn't matter. The team loses, and it's deflating. You're part of that, and it's just as much your fault. In the Phillies series, I didn't do my job. Game 1, I didn't pitch well. I came in relief the last game, I was doing all right, then one bad pitch [a Shane Victorino homer in his third inning of work] did it for me. That's what good teams will do to you. It's something to grow on, to get better at and learn from for this season."

Kershaw doesn't set statistical goals -- "It only limits you" -- but has the natural team goal.

"It's to win it all and get selfish with it," he said. "We've gotten so close the past two years. I think this whole team is ready for it this year. I like the way we're set up, having a lot of guys back. I feel real good about it."

Kershaw spent the winter working out in Dallas, and he said it went well, except for a mishap that ripped six inches of skin off his left shin.

Considered untouchable trade-wise, Kershaw took himself off the personal free-agent market when he proposed to Ellen Melson and set a wedding date of Dec. 4. His fiancee, a senior at Texas A&M, spends part of each summer on a religious aid mission to Zambia for "Camp Life."

Kershaw would like to join her someday, but right now he's on a different mission. He said that this spring is like last spring in that he still must win a job and can't be complacent. He's not concerned about being considered the ace and said that receiving the Opening Day nod would be a "huge honor."

"That Mr. Torre gives me that respect would be awesome," he said.

Kershaw disagrees with fans who are concerned that the Dodgers lost ground over the winter by not making an impact acquisition.

"One more season under your belt makes a lot of people better," he said. "It gets overlooked, what a year can do for somebody. The guys who are younger have a great chance to get better in a year. I know, last year to this year, I felt so much more comfortable. This year I expect a lot more from myself."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.