Dodgers turn focus to young starting duo

After opening loss, focus turns to young starters

PITTSBURGH -- With Vicente Padilla misfiring on Opening Day, the Dodgers regrouped with a Tuesday off-day workout and prepared to salvage the series against the Pirates with their young duo of first-round draft pick starters.

Clayton Kershaw, expected by many to have been manager Joe Torre's Opening Day selection, instead starts Wednesday night with a chance to claim early stopper honors, and Chad Billingsley goes in Thursday's finale.

With no established ace to choose from, Torre is still being questioned about not giving the ball to Kershaw to start the season, especially after he had Kershaw start Game 1 of last year's NL Championship Series against the Phillies.

"I didn't think it would be fair to put it all on him," Torre said of the 22-year-old left-hander. "I have no problem giving him the ball. I wasn't afraid to name him No. 1, I wasn't concerned he couldn't handle it, it's just not fair.

"He's handled all the stuff we've thrown at him -- the up and down [to and from the Minor Leagues in 2008], he's gotten his rear beaten up and he came back to pitch well, he dislocated his shoulder [late last season] and came back and gave us a big start in the division-winning game that Saturday. Of all the games, that had the most pressure because of how badly we were going. I just didn't want to drop it all on him."

When Torre makes a decision that might not seem obvious to others, there's often life experience factoring into it. He said he remembered being a player with the Cardinals in 1972 when they traded Jerry Reuss to the Astros for Scipio Spinks, who had only 45 big league innings at the time. Spinks made 16 starts and had a 2.67 ERA over the second half that season for the Cardinals.

"He had electric stuff and pitched so well that second half and I think about how much we counted on him the next year," Torre recalled. "He just couldn't handle it. It wasn't fair for us as players to expect that much. A lot of it was his personality, but the big bravado was insecurity. We thought he was going to be special."

Spinks went 1-5 in eight starts in 1973, was demoted in June and never pitched in the Major Leagues again.

That said, it's all on Kershaw on Wednesday night and Torre seems confident that Kershaw is well suited to get the Dodgers even.

"A lot of it is confidence," Torre said about Kershaw's demeanor, flashing back to the first game Kershaw pitched for Torre in Spring Training of 2008. "The first pitch he gives up a home run and walks halfway to the catcher like, give me the ball, and I said, 'Look at this.' He certainly has a good presence about him. I still think he needs to channel a lot of his enthusiasm."

Now in his 29th season of big league managing, Torre said he hasn't had many pitching prodigies. He offers up Andy Pettitte, although the left-hander was 24 with 175 innings already under his belt when Torre became the Yankees manager in 1996.

"You could see there was something special in this kid," he said of Pettitte. "But he didn't want attention. I think this kid (Kershaw) can handle attention."

Asked to compare the makeup of Kershaw and Billingsley, Torre zeroed in on the mental game.

"Kershaw is coming off a great second half and Billingsley is coming off a bad second half," Torre said. "I don't care how long you play, confidence is based on performance. Even though Billingsley knows he can be better than that, it's a matter of getting the feel.

"Kershaw is more laid back than Billingsley in demeanor. Both are very competitive. Kershaw, he's a guy that comes at you. Billingsley, he asks himself to do a lot of things tough to do -- be perfect at times. That's where they're different. Kershaw trusts his stuff a little more than Bills does."

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