ATLANTA -- How did Clayton Kershaw get so good so fast?
Kershaw, the Dodgers' starter for Game 1 of the National League Division Series in Atlanta on Thursday night (airing live on TBS at 5:30 p.m. PT), is favored to win his second NL Cy Young Award this year at age 25. Sandy Koufax was 29 when he won his second of three Cy Youngs.
At age 18, Kershaw was selected by the Dodgers with the seventh pick in the first round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, so he was no secret even then. At age 17, Kershaw was an unpolished junior at Highland Park High School outside of Dallas, Texas. His visibility rose when he made USA Baseball's junior national team that summer.
Entering his senior season, Kershaw was rated the 34th high-school prospect in the nation by Baseball America. He finished that season 12-0 and was the first prep pitcher drafted.
How did that happen?
"Talk to Skip Johnson," said Kershaw.
Johnson is now the pitching coach for Augie Garrido at the University of Texas. In 2005, Johnson was coaching at Navarro Junior College, and he got a call from a friend, J.D. Smart, who was sending a high-school pitcher to Johnson for private lessons.
Smart, whose agency will do the negotiating when and if the Dodgers lock up Kershaw this winter, then was "advisor" to the Kershaw family. He told Kershaw that to maximize his Draft value, he needed to work out some mechanical flaws and improve his consistency.
Kershaw accepted Smart's suggestions and worked with Johnson every Tuesday for almost three months in the winter of 2005-06.
"I'm not the best pitching coach in the world. All I did was give him a structured plan to work on his mechanics," said Johnson, who still records all of Kershaw's starts. "Suddenly, he was throwing 94-96 [mph]. His aptitude and athleticism make him what he is. He has the ability to repeat his delivery, and he makes adjustments fast."
Overall: 32 G (31 GS), 15-12, 3.11 ERA, 47 BB, 157 K
Key stat: 0.92 WHIP led the Major Leagues
Key stat: 1.00 ERA in five September starts for Atlanta
At Turner Field
2013: Did not pitch Career: 1 GS, 0-0, 2.57 ERA
2013: 17 G (16 GS), 9-6, 2.26 ERA Career: 79 G (30 GS), 16-11, 2.42 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: Did not face Career: 4 GS, 0-0, 2.45 ERA
2013: 2 GS, 1-0, 0.00 ERA Career: 8 G (3 GS), 3-0, 1.23 ERA
Loves to face: Justin Upton, 3-for-29, 9 K Hates to face: Freddie Freeman, 1-for-2, 1 HR
Loves to face: Michael Young, 1-for-10 Hates to face: Hanley Ramirez, 5-for-9
Why he'll win: Has not allowed a run in past 13 innings
Why he'll win: Did not allow a run in 13 2/3 innings against Dodgers this year
Pitcher beware: Has not faced the Braves in two years
Pitcher beware: Lost his only other postseason start
Bottom line: Set the tone on the road
Bottom line: Maintain momentum from unbeaten September
Kershaw described the mechanical changes like this:
"Skip changed me from low three-quarters delivery to over the top," he said. "That helped me keep my weight back. That was actually the first real pitching lesson I ever had."
Smart said the improvement in Kershaw was dramatic.
"He used to drift down the mound before his hands broke [separating the ball from the glove]," said Smart. "He hadn't been using his lower half. So his arm was playing catch-up with the body. He was all arm. I knew that if he had the aptitude and was willing to work, he could be something special. Did I dream we'd see what we're seeing today? No.
"But after about six weeks, I got a call from Skip and he told me, 'You need to come to Dallas and see this.' What I saw was basically what you see now. Clayton picked up five miles an hour. He took the instruction and it clicked."
Coming into that season, the top-ranked pitching prospect in Texas was Jordan Walden, now a reliever for the Braves. But Kershaw became the state's dominant pitcher for Highland Park, a school with a legendary sports program in an affluent suburb of Dallas. The Kershaw family, however, was not affluent. Kershaw attended Highland Park because his mother, Marianne, a single mom working as a graphics designer, made sure he did.
"We didn't have a lot of money," said Kershaw, who has no siblings. "I don't know how she did it. I know those years of travel ball, it wasn't cheap. But keeping me in that school district, that was huge."
The only other Major Leaguer produced by Highland Park is pitcher Chris Young. The school is more noted as a football factory, graduating Hall of Famer Bobby Layne, Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker and current Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, whose center on the freshman team was Kershaw.
By his senior year, Kershaw was all over the Dodgers' radar.
"We had him as a one-to-three round follow going into the spring, but he showed early he was a certain one," said Logan White, the Dodgers' vice president of scouting. "I saw him three times down the stretch. In one of his last games in May before the Draft, he threw just OK. There were numerous teams there, especially those picking in front of us. This really helped us."
Kershaw had a 0.72 ERA that year, with 139 strikeouts in 64 innings. He was the Gatorade National Player of the Year and the USA Today High School Baseball Player of the Year, and he threw a true perfect game -- 15 batters faced, 15 batters fanned -- in a game shortened to five innings by a 10-run "mercy" rule.
No "mercy" rules don't exist where he pitches now, but maybe they should. Three seasons ago, Kershaw picked up a slider in one bullpen session with Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, and a few months later, he won his first Cy Young Award. He's since added a changeup for a four-pitch repertoire that allows him to pitch effectively to both sides of the plate.
"He's come so far," said manager Don Mattingly. "He was a two-pitch pitcher, but in this league, it's tough to get the curveball called. Umpires miss it, and when that happens, hitters eliminate it. So he was a one-pitch guy on one side of the plate dominant. Now, he's just evolved with the slider and changeup to both sides. He's a totally different matchup for a hitter. You wouldn't recognize the pitcher then to now."
This year, Kershaw has been more spectacular than a 16-9 record appears. His 1.83 ERA led the league for a third consecutive season and is the first Dodgers sub-2.00 mark since Sandy Koufax's 1.73 farewell 1966 season. In Kershaw's nine losses, the Dodgers scored a total of 13 runs.
"If he's not the best, you have to sell me on who's better," Mattingly said. "If we had got the guy some runs, he might have won 25 or 26 games this year."
Kershaw pitched in the 2009 playoffs, starting and winning Game 2 of the NLDS, losing Game 1 of the NL Championship Series.
"I've learned how to pitch a little bit," he said of the difference in him from then to now.
Kershaw also has embraced wife Ellen's passion for the children of Zambia, raising funds to build an orphanage and making annual missionary trips there. He won the Roberto Clemente Award last year and the Branch Rickey Award this year, both for contributions off the field.
"He's very diligent and clinical in everything he does," said Smart. "It's been pretty remarkable and fun to watch. It's hard to say he'll improve from where he is, but I wouldn't put it past him."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.