Clayton Kershaw returns home, where he dominated, hoping to deliver Dodgers a title
Eighteen days before the Dodgers drafted him, 32 days before he signed, and more than 14 years before he will make a major league start where he grew up for the first time, Clayton Kershaw solidified himself as one of the greatest pitchers in Texas high school history.
It happened in the third round of the 4A state playoffs at Highland Park High School in May 2006. Kershaw was a senior, the school’s ace, and shortly would be named the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year. Northwest High School became roadkill. Kershaw struck out every batter he faced in a five-inning perfect game and homered before the mercy rule took effect in a 10-0 win.
“It was the best pitching performance I’ve ever seen live in my entire life,” Che Hendrix said. “For sure.”
Hendrix was the baseball coach at Northwest, the same school Dodgers right-hander Dustin May later attended. He’s now the football coach at Boerne High outside of San Antonio, a 4½-hour drive from the scene. But when Kershaw takes the mound at Globe Life Field for Game 2 of the National League division series against the San Diego Padres, Hendrix will be locked in.
Globe Life Field will seat 11,500 fans at each World Series and National League Championship Series game, but temperatures won’t be taken to gain admission.
“He beat us and ended our season and there’s nothing but respect and admiration for him from all of us; I know that for a fact,” Hendrix said. “And so I would love nothing more than for him to come back and not only win it, but be the MVP and pitch well. Because I think he deserves it.”
Tommy Hernandez watched Kershaw carve up the Milwaukee Brewers in Game 2 of the wild card series last week with 13 strikeouts in eight innings from his couch with his wife.
“Man, it was the Clayton of old,” Hernandez said with a laugh.
Hernandez has known Kershaw since he was a chunky 9-year-old who started playing in Hernandez’s Dallas Tigers youth program. Kershaw played for the Tigers until he was 16. Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and Shawn Tolleson, a former pitcher for the Texas Rangers, were among his teammates.
“Heck yeah,” Hernandez said when asked he if plans on attending at Globe Life Field to watch Kershaw pitch if the Dodgers advance to the NL Championship Series. Major League Baseball plans on allowing 11,500 fans to each NLCS and World Series game.
“I’m rooting for him,” Hernandez said. “I’ll tell you what’s killed me is the last couple of postseasons where people are just crucifying him. That guy’s the face of the franchise and he’s given his heart and soul to that club.”
Kershaw, 32, grew up a diehard Rangers fan. He’d attend a handful of games every year at Globe Life Park, the brick building still standing across from the Rangers’ new home, with friends. They’d usually sit on the second level above the third base dugout. He wears No. 22 for Will Clark, the former first baseman who spent five seasons with the Rangers. But Kershaw never got a chance to pitch at the stadium.
“It would be a pretty cool thing to say, to have get to have done,” Kershaw said. “But I got to go, and I got to go be a visiting player in the ballpark I grew up watching.”
On Wednesday, he’ll wake up in a hotel 10 minutes from his home and pitch in an empty stadium.
“This whole thing is weird,” Kershaw said.
It will be his first appearance in the Dallas area since he went 13-0 with a 0.77 earned-run average and 139 strikeouts in 64 innings his senior season. He made three starts in the playoffs that year. His team won all three. But the first one, made after missing a few weeks because of an oblique injury, became part of Kershaw’s lore.
Hendrix remembers the hype surrounding Kershaw. They knew he was probably going to be the first high school player taken in the MLB draft the next month (and he was, going No. 7 overall to the Dodgers). He possessed an unprecedented blend of velocity and command for an 18-year-old. He’d throw 3-and-1 changeups and first-pitch breaking balls.
The Dodgers are using in-game stadium production at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, to re-create a slice of their typical home game experience.
Northwest was in it for the small victories. Hendrix remembered the first three hitters each worked a full count before striking out.
“I said, ‘You know what? That’s a pretty good inning,’” Hendrix said. “And from there we didn’t touch a ball.”
After the third inning, Hendrix approached the plate umpire. Every pitch he throws can’t be a strike, he said. Some of them have to be balls. No, the umpire answered. They’re all strikes.
“I threw my hands up,” Hendrix recalled, “and said, ‘Well, so be it, I guess.’ He was that good. I mean, he was that good, man.”
Fourteen years later, after winning three Cy Young awards and an NL most valuable player award, Kershaw is back to pitch in another playoff game, looking to push the Dodgers closer to that championship that has painfully eluded him, just 25 minutes away.
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