Clayton Kershaw Is Still the King Until Someone Comes to Take His Crown

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterApril 4, 2017

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 03:  Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches during the fifth inning during an Opening Day game against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium on April 3, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Sorry, Bryce Harper, Opening Day does not belong to you.

Harper can keep hitting home runs (another one Monday, five in five Opening Day games), but this is still a day for pitchers, still a day for aces. And that means it's still Clayton Kershaw's day.

It always has been, from the first time then-Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly gave a 23-year-old left-hander the assignment that defines an ace. The kid outdueled a two-time Cy Young Award winner that night in 2011, striking out nine in seven scoreless innings to beat Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco Giants.

So much has happened in the six years since. Kershaw has won three Cy Youngs and finished in the top three two other times. So much has happened and so little has changed, and Opening Day is as good a day as any to remember it.

Clayton Kershaw still owns Opening Day—and plenty of other days, too. The last couple have been great for watching aces, from Carlos Martinez and Madison Bumgarner to Noah Syndergaard and Stephen Strasburg.

They looked great, all of them. And then Kershaw took the mound Monday afternoon at Dodger Stadium and reminded everyone how good he is. Until proved otherwise, he's still the best there is.

On this day, otherwise wasn't proved.

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Facing the San Diego Padres, Kershaw allowed a hit and an unearned run in the first inning. He didn't allow another baserunner until there were two out in the seventh. Kershaw then gave up a Ryan Schimpf home run that didn't change the game—the Dodgers won 14-3—but did allow us another way to admire Kershaw's greatness.

That Schimpf home run? It was the first Kershaw has ever allowed on Opening Day, in seven games and 45.2 innings. It was only the sixth Opening Day run he's ever allowed, only the fifth earned run.

His ERA in those seven Opening Day starts: 0.99.

The numbers are presented for your enjoyment, rather than as a case for Kershaw's greatness. Rick Mahler had a 0.92 ERA in his five Opening Day starts for the Atlanta Braves of the 1980s, and no one was calling him baseball's best pitcher.

We've been calling Kershaw that for at least the last six years, and all Monday's performance did was let us know it's not time to stop calling him that yet.

There were questions last year, when a back injury cost him two-and-a-half months of the season. Even though he returned and pitched well, back injuries are tricky enough that questions remained.

Kershaw answered many of the questions with a fine spring training. Any that remained were answered Monday.

It wasn't just the numbers, because it was only one game against a lineup that will struggle against lesser pitchers. It was the way he looked, and the way observers like Sandy Koufax looked as they watched him.

When Kershaw caught Travis Jankowski looking at one beautiful sixth-inning curveball, ESPN's broadcast cut to Koufax in the stands with a big grin.

Sandy Koufax and Clayton Kershaw in 2013.
Sandy Koufax and Clayton Kershaw in 2013.Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The curveball reminds some people of the ones Koufax once threw. The overall look does, too.

There are other pitchers who throw harder. Kershaw's fastball averaged 92.4 mph Monday, according to BrooksBaseball.net, and his slider averaged 88.5. Compare that to Syndergaard (99.0 and 91.8 mph Monday against the Atlanta Braves).

Syndergaard throws harder, but Kershaw is still the best.
Syndergaard throws harder, but Kershaw is still the best.Elsa/Getty Images

Syndergaard is special, and he looked it on Opening Day. He's five years younger than Kershaw, and Mark Simon of ESPN.com asked a reasonable question when he wondered if Syndergaard can someday reach Kershaw's level.

"As far as pure stuff is concerned, Noah is there," Mets television analyst Ron Darling told Simon.

He's there, but Kershaw is too, still on top.

He's still baseball's best Opening Day starter. He's still baseball's best starter.

Until proved otherwise.

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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