Lyle Spencer

A left-handed compliment for Kershaw

Padres manager Black, pitching expert and former MLB southpaw, says Dodgers' ace is best in game

A left-handed compliment for Kershaw

LOS ANGELES -- Bud Black is a pitching aficionado. That's what makes every Clayton Kershaw performance something special. Black studies the craft the way a jeweler appraises watches. Every movement, on the mound and on a pitch, tells him something.

"He's just got a lot of things going for him," Black, the Padres' manager, said of Kershaw, the Dodgers' ace. "This guy's passed the test of time with great performances. He's the best pitcher in the game. You'd be hard-pressed to take anyone over him."

The textbook stylish southpaw in his day, Black appeared in 398 games for five clubs across 15 seasons, winning 121 with a 3.84 career ERA. He started for a World Series championship team in 1985 in Kansas City, playing a role in triumphs over the Blue Jays in the American League Championship Series and the Cardinals in a memorable Fall Classic.

A natural to go into the teaching side of the game, Black excelled as a pitching coach on a star-studded staff arranged by Angels manager Mike Scioscia, celebrating another World Series title in 2002. The Padres' always-upbeat manager for eight seasons, Black has held up remarkably well through good and lean times in San Diego, claiming the National League Manager of the Year Award in 2010.

No manager in the game could have done more with the 2014 Padres than Bud Black. He has lifted a collection of relatively nondescript athletes to third place in the NL West, a division dominated by the Dodgers and the Giants.

Alighting at Dodger Stadium on Monday for a three-game series with the division leaders, Black was enthused about the prospect of watching his developing Cuban right-hander, Odrisamer Despaigne, go against the gold standard, Kershaw.

It should not be surprising that there is no bigger Kershaw fan than the man in the visitors' dugout who has seen and studied them all in his 35 years in the game.

"He has a very unique delivery -- that's what separates him from other left-handers who were All-Star caliber," Black said when asked about Kershaw, a strong candidate for all the awards he is qualified to claim in the midst of a historic season. "From the windup to the stretch, it's a very unique delivery.

"Stuff-wise, other guys have had the fastball/slider combo. Power lefties like [Ron] Guidry and [Steve] Carlton had that low-90s fastball with a hard slider. But Kershaw has that overhand hook that Guidry didn't have, Carlton didn't have. He's got the changeup those guys didn't have. [Jon] Lester has most of the [same] stuff, but Kershaw's more deceptive with his high overhead slot."

Kershaw often uses his pinpoint fastball to set up hitters with his two breaking pitches, both of which can be unhittable when he's on his game.

"He has what we call 'late life' in the hitting area," Black said. "His slider in the hitting area disappears. His hook from that overhead release point pops out high and looks like a ball to the hitter -- until it crosses the plate."

Old-school guys such as Black in the NL love to see a pitcher play the total game. Kershaw gets after it with the attitude of a position player, from swinging the bat with purpose to running the bases with passion.

"Obviously, what we like about him is he's a great kid," Black said. "He has great respect for the game and the competition. He plays hard; you saw that in the way he went first to third" in his most recent start against the Nationals.

"I like watching him play. From my background, he does everything the right way."

A return to Dodger Stadium inevitably reminds Black, "from a personal standpoint, probably my most frustrating year." It was 1993, the debut seasons in San Francisco of Dusty Baker as manager and Barry Bonds as superstar, and Black was part of a rock-solid rotation.

"I was 8-2 when my elbow started going bad," Black said. "I missed basically the last two months of the season. From a personal standpoint, being on the disabled list, approaching surgery and not being able to help, that was so frustrating and disappointing. There was that chance to get back in the playoffs. I knew what that was like with Kansas City.

"The Braves went and got [Fred] McGriff and kept coming after us [in the NL West]. They caught us, passed us, and we came back and caught them. We came to the last series even. The Braves were playing the expansion Rockies in Atlanta and we were here, facing the Dodgers.

"Every day we'd come out to stretch and it was Braves 5, Rockies 1 on the scoreboard. We won Thursday night, we won Friday night, we won Saturday night -- and got beat on the last day. We had 103 wins and were shut out of the playoffs."

Black will always wonder what those 1993 Giants, a stacked team with assets everywhere, might have done if his elbow hadn't gone south on him. That final series likely would have been a playoff tuneup.

"I was 37 years old, but I could still pitch," he said. "I could tell my elbow was starting to go. I went on the DL, did all the rehab, took cortisone shots. I probably tried to come back too soon. Maybe I should have waited for September.

"That was such a good team. It still hurts, just thinking about it."

The game can fill you up, bring you the highest of highs. It also can break your heart.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.