The first time Joe Torre saw Clayton Kershaw pitch, he compared him to Sandy Koufax. On Thursday, the talented young left-hander took his biggest step yet toward proving that comparison apt by winning the 2011 National League Cy Young Award.
The 23-year-old Texan received 27 of a possible 32 first-place votes and a points total of 207 in balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Phillies teammates Roy Halladay (133) and Cliff Lee (90) were second and third, with Halladay picking up four first-place votes. The D-backs' Ian Kennedy, who appeared first on one ballot, placed fourth in the voting.
Kershaw officially accepted the award during a press conference on the field at Dodger Stadium. He was introduced by legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully and feted by a host of the club's luminaries, including former Dodgers Cy Young winners Fernando Valenzuela and Don Newcombe, former stolen-base champion Maury Wills and current teammates Matt Kemp and James Loney.
"The only thing I will say is I'm really humbled to be here," Kershaw said, after leading his comments by saying that he didn't have a lot to say. "I always dreamed about playing baseball as a kid, maybe one day making it to the big leagues, but I never dreamed about anything like this, so it's really special."
NL Cy Young voting totals
Kershaw's Cy Young is the 10th won by a Dodgers pitcher, the first since reliever Eric Gagne in 2003, the first by a Dodgers starter since Orel Hershiser in 1988 and first by a Dodgers lefty since Valenzuela in his 1981 rookie season.
The Cy Young caps a remarkable breakout season for Kershaw. A 2011 All-Star, Kershaw won the NL's Triple Crown for pitchers, leading the league with 21 wins (tied), a 2.28 ERA and 248 strikeouts. Koufax (1963, 1965 and 1966) and Dazzy Vance (1924) are the only other Dodgers pitchers to win a Triple Crown. Kershaw also was among the league leaders in opponents' batting average, innings pitched, complete games, shutouts and WHIP.
Kershaw, 21-5 overall, was earlier this month named winner of a Gold Glove (he led the league with nine pickoffs), the first Dodger to win a Cy Young and Gold Glove in the same year since Hershiser. Kershaw won the Warren Spahn Award as the best left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball, won a Players Choice Award for outstanding pitcher in the NL, was named to The Sporting News NL All-Star team, was a finalist for the Roberto Clemente Award and was named Dodgers Pitcher of the Year by MLB.com.
His victory total and ERA were the best by a Dodgers starting pitcher since Hershiser in 1988 and his strikeout total was the highest by a Dodger since Koufax's 317 in 1966. He was the Dodgers' first 20-game winner since Ramon Martinez in 1990. Kershaw went 13-1 over the second half, was 12-1 at Dodger Stadium and finished the season with eight consecutive wins.
Even with all that, Kershaw said Thursday that he never imagined winning a Cy Young -- probably because he had other things on his mind during a trying and ultimately promising season for his team.
"I was surprised to win," Kershaw said. "You see the other names you're associated with -- the Roy Halladays, the Cliff Lees, Ian Kennedy -- and just to be a part of that is special. To come out a winner is even more special.
"James and Matt had a lot to do with me winning games, as well as my catchers Rod [Barajas], Dioner [Navarro] and A.J. [Ellis] and our defense."
Kershaw also said part of his success was related to him being the recipient of plenty of run support in the early innings. He credited Kemp for helping on that end while also stating that he hopes the news of an agreed-upon contract extension for the young outfielder and MVP candidate would become official as soon as next Tuesday, when the NL MVP winner is announced.
"I hope to have Matt in center field for me for what looks like a really, really long time," Kershaw said. "I'm looking forward to Tuesday."
Kershaw began his third full season in the Major Leagues as the Opening Day starter and ended it by becoming the youngest 20-game winner in the Major Leagues since 20-year-old Dwight Gooden of the Mets in 1985 and the youngest Dodgers 20-game winner since 21-game winner Ralph Branca in 1947. He went 12-2 against the NL West, 5-0 against the Giants and 4-0 against their ace, two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum.
When asked if his performances against Lincecum ranked as the highlight of his season, Kershaw spoke more of the team.
"Winning is the most important thing," he said "It always has been and always will be. I don't really care who I'm pitching against.
"We weren't really satisfied with this year. The last two months of the season, we played really well, and hopefully we can build off that. ... We're all working toward a bigger goal, and that's to win everything. And I think we're on the same page for next year."
Kershaw did manage to show a sense of humor, though. When asked for one particular shining moment that might have stood out in a 2011 campaign full of them, he cracked a smile.
"I'm trying to think of my favorite hit that I had," he said, before getting serious again ... sort of.
"Individually, it's tough for me to look back. I think winning 20 games is special, winning it at home, winning it against the Giants is something I'll remember for a long time.
"Stealing a base, maybe. I tried to steal some bases. That was fun."
In addition to Kershaw's stellar statistics on the mound, he had a great year for personal growth. He was married to his wife, Ellen, and continued his charitable work, which led to the Clemente nomination. That work includes an organization called Arise Africa, which raises money to help build orphanages in Zambia. Kershaw plans to make a second visit to the African nation this winter with his wife, and he donated $100 per strikeout to the organization this season as a part of his "Kershaw's Challenge" program in hopes of building another orphanage.
Kershaw, who earned $500,000 in 2011, is eligible for salary arbitration for the first time. The Dodgers are not likely to lock him up long term because they control him for another three years and it would make financial sense to the club only if it were to buy up several years of his free agency. But with that would come the risk of making a long-term deal for a pitcher.
At the end of the press conference, he was asked if anything could get better than the year he had in 2011, what with the marriage and the Cy Young.
"A second anniversary and a World Series sounds pretty good," Kershaw said. "That'd just about do it."