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Tracy Ringolsby

Kershaw soars to new heights, regardless of altitude

Dodgers ace riding 36-inning scoreless streak after masterful Mile High outing

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MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

DENVER -- Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw has taken his game to that next level.

The discussion no longer is about how he compares to his contemporaries.

It's where he will rank among the all-time great pitchers -- regardless of what arm they threw with.

He's always been pretty good.

He was, after all, the seventh player taken in the 2006 Draft, the first high school player to be selected that year. After 46 games -- 42 starts -- in the Minors and at the age of 20, he got his call to the big leagues, making his debut one year and 340 days after signing his first pro contract.

By the age of 23 he was a 20-game winner and had his first Cy Young Award, and two years later, he added a second Cy Young in a 2013 season underscored by Major League-leading 1.83 ERA.

For an encore ...

DODGING RUNS
Here are the longest scoreless streaks in Los Angeles Dodgers history:
Pitcher IP Dates
Orel Hershiser 59 Aug. 30-Sept. 28, '88
Don Drysdale 58 May 14-June 8, '68
Clayton Kershaw 36 June 13, '14-current
Don Sutton 35 Sept. 10-Oct. 3, '72
Fernando Valenzuela 35 April 14-May 3, '81
Hershiser 33.2 June 29-July 24, '84
Chan Ho Park 33 Sept. 19, '00-April 7, '01
Sandy Koufax 33 July 3-16, '63
Valenzuela 31.2 Sept. 19, '80-April 14, '81
Bob Miller 31.2 May 23-June 26, '64
Sutton 29.2 April 25-May 12, '72

Well, on Friday night he ran his shutout streak, which includes a no-hitter against Colorado at Dodger Stadium on June 18, to 36 innings with eight more scoreless innings to the Rockies, whose lineup had as many hits off Kershaw (two) as Kershaw had himself.

There might not be any one thing that underscores the maturing of Kershaw as one of the game's premiere pitchers than his recent activities at the Mile High environment of Coors Field.

It is a ballpark that has tormented pitchers since it opened in 1995 and victimized Kershaw initially. In his first 11 starts at Coors Field, he was not only 3-3, but he had a 6.28 ERA.

Put that struggle to rest.

Kershaw has won his last four starts at Coors Field, including a four-hit shutout on July 2 a year ago. He has compiled a 2.00 ERA in the process.

"It is different here," Kershaw said. "There's no getting around it. More than anything you have to attack. You can't let the place make you passive or defensive. You can't get frustrated. If you get a pitch up, move on. There's not a lot of forgiveness here."

Early in his career, Kershaw, like so many pitchers, would fuss over the oddities of altitude.

Kershaw, though, isn't like so many other pitchers. As he became more familiar with the nuances, he has learned to not just compete but succeed.

"In their early years a lot of guys come in here and wonder," said manager Don Mattingly, "but he's like a freight train. He doesn't look back and wonder what happened. He just keeps going forward.

"He comes in here and still uses his curveball. He still uses his slider. He still attacks the strike zone. He doesn't worry no matter where he goes. Whether it's a small park or big park, at sea level or at altitude, he knows what he has to do to get the job done."

It is part of a learning curve that pitching coach Rick Honeycutt has enjoyed watching Kershaw master since he signed he joined the Dodgers' organization as an 18-year-old out of Highland Park High School, just down the road from the SMU campus.

"I think the more you experience something, the more you can handle it," said Honeycutt. "Obviously his stuff the last few years has been better.

"A lot of pitchers get psyched out here. They don't feel their curveball or slider breaks as much, so they overthrow the fastball and get out of rhythm. It's pretty easy to make excuses here, but you still have to pitch here. The ones who want to succeed learn how to deal with it."

Kershaw is one of those.

It's apparent as those last four starts. Oh, there was a five-inning, 11-hit, five-run adventure here last September, but he did get the win in that game, and even with that night on his log, he has allowed only 22 baserunners -- 20 hits and two walks -- while striking out 29 in his four consecutive wins at altitude.

Those previous 11 starts at Coors? Try 91 baserunners -- 26 on walks -- in 57 1/3 innings.

"Pitching is all about adjustments, not just from one year to the next, but every game, no matter where you are pitching," said Honeycutt. "The ability to make those adjustments is what separates the good ones.

"Clayton has been able to make the adjustment. That's why he's pretty good."

How good?

Well, his career 2.55 ERA is the lowest since 1920 for any pitcher with at least 1,000 innings pitched and 100 games started.

He is right in front of Whitey Ford (2.75), Sandy Koufax (2.76), Spud Chandler (2.84) and Jim Palmer (2.86).

And none of those Hall of Famers ever had to pitch at Coors Field.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Write 'em Cowboy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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