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Lyle Spencer

Kershaw's excellence reaching new heights

Competitive on the field and caring off it, southpaw an embodiment of balance

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LOS ANGELES -- Balance in all things, the great philosopher John Wooden liked to tell us, is the secret to a happy, productive life.

"The amazing thing about Clayton Kershaw," Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti was saying on a warm Wednesday morning, "is that he learned that at such a young age, in his early 20s. That usually comes late in life."

Kershaw, 17-3 and on his way to an unprecedented fourth consecutive Major League ERA title at 1.70 after dispatching the Nationals, 4-1, on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium, is balanced in all things -- from his delivery on the mound to his stroke at home plate to his philanthropic personal life with wife Ellen.

Their far-reaching global charity work with Kershaw's Challenge, notably with "Arise Africa," has enabled the 26-year-old Dallas native to develop an outlet away from the game. It has been healthy emotionally to him, Colletti maintains, as well as life-changing for countless underprivileged youths in Los Angeles and Dallas, in addition to Africa.

Kershaw treasures his 2012 Roberto Clemente Award for positive social contributions as deeply as his National League Cy Young Awards in 2011 and '13.

"When you get immersed in something like that, something that important," Colletti said, "I think that when you come back to your professional life, it gives you a fresh perspective. It's a dynamic switch.

"He has a very humane perspective on many, many things. As competitive as he is on the field -- and he's as competitive as anyone I've been around -- what he does in Africa, the balance it gives him, is key. There's another part of his life that's extremely important to him. He's not consumed by baseball 24 hours a day, every day. That can drive you a little crazy -- believe me."

The Sandy Koufax comparisons are inevitable, and if they make Kershaw a little uncomfortable, it underscores his humility. He knows he has not yet approached Koufax's magic in the crucible of October.

As dominant as he has been in the regular season, Kershaw has yet to author a memorable postseason. His final start of a magnificent 2013 season was a pounding he absorbed in St. Louis in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series, sending the Cardinals on to a World Series date with eventual champion Boston.

Koufax pitched for great teams in the 1960s, racking up a perfect game and three other no-hitters to set a record Nolan Ryan eclipsed. Koufax took his legend to new levels with dominant performances against the Yankees in a four-game sweep in the '63 World Series and by producing one of the most remarkable efforts ever, a shutout of the Twins in Game 7 of the '65 Fall Classic in Minnesota on two days' rest. Koufax's final pitch was thrown in the '66 World Series against the Orioles.

Kershaw knows his history, and he clearly would love to experience everything a championship brings. But in this sport, nobody does it without a lot of help -- including Koufax.

"I think he's always motivated," Colletti said. "But even those of us who are always motivated, sometimes there's a new thing that takes it to a new level. Not that he needs motivating -- he wakes up motivated. But he is driven to not only have a great career, but to win a championship."

Kershaw worked on three days' rest in clinching Game 4 of the NL Division Series last October against the Braves. The night before, he met with Colletti, manager Don Mattingly and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt.

"I asked him to do the impossible -- separate competitiveness from how you feel," Colletti said. "He said, 'Ned, I could never do anything to jeopardize my health. I train all winter and prepare all spring so that I'm prepared to do this on short rest.'"

Kershaw took care of business, the Dodgers prevailing on Juan Uribe's home run to arrange the NLCS date with the Cards. In 13 innings against the Braves, after throwing a career-high 236 regular-season innings, he held Atlanta to one earned run and 10 baserunners, striking out 18.

The heavy workload might have been a factor in Kershaw losing twice to St. Louis, yielding seven earned runs in 10 innings. He's 1-3 with a 4.23 ERA in nine postseason appearances, six as a starter.

"Keep in mind," Colletti said, "he was still a young guy when we were in the playoffs in '08 and '09."

In his ninth season as the Dodgers' GM and 33rd in the Majors, Colletti worked previously in the front offices of the Cubs and Giants.

"I've been around a lot of players who are in Cooperstown, a lot of elite players who were All-Stars, won awards," Colletti said. "In Chicago, our three hardest workers were Greg Maddux, Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson [all Hall of Famers].

"Ryno was winning Gold Gloves and taking hundreds of ground balls. Andre, to play through knee injuries, showed up at 8 in the morning and left to go home at 8 at night. Maddux spent so much time studying and learning.

"Clayton is like that. He works as hard as anybody. It's what separates the good from the great, the great from the all-time best. He can be one of the all-time best."

The Dodgers are 19-4 when Kershaw starts, 59-57 when he doesn't.

A traditionalist, Colletti under normal circumstances views the Most Valuable Player Award as the province of position players. This, he hastens to add, is no normal season.

"Typically, I think the MVP is for position players and the pitchers have the Cy Young," Colletti said. "But I think there are exceptions. What Clayton has done for this team and how he's done it ... it's tough to say he hasn't been the 'most valuable player.'"

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

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