LOS ANGELES -- After four days without baseball, we are treated to one of the best pitching matchups possible in Game 1 of the NLDS, with Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers facing off against Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals.
These two will finish in the top three in National League Cy Young voting, with Kershaw a lock to capture his third award in four seasons. Both have tremendous admiration for one another.
"I'm more impressed that, what is he, 26 years old?," Wainwright asked rhetorically. "That he's had the career he's already had and is the pitcher he is already. Most times it takes a pitcher a few years to kind of break in and then he starts finding his own and he's just been excellent from the very beginning."
Kershaw, who has jokingly referred to the 33-year-old Wainwright as "Gramps," is impressed by the right-hander.
"Yeah, he competes. He's such a good competitor. I think that's what the first thing that really comes to my mind when I think about him, I've gotten to know him over the course of the last couple years and obviously a great guy," Kershaw said. "We, I love talking to him just about life on and off the field. A lot of similar qualities, I think."
Prior to Kershaw vs. Wainwright on Friday, the last postseason matchup between 20-game winners was Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, with Curt Schilling (22-6) starting against Roger Clemens (20-3). There were five such matchups in the 2001 postseason, with Clemens and Mark Mulder (21-8) facing off twice in the ALDS and Schilling and Matt Morris (22-8) twice in the NLDS.
Both Wainwright and Kershaw also have chips on their shoulders, which probably helps make them great.
"Adam has a composure on the mound, he has a coolness about him, but he also has a fierceness of a competitor. It's a great mix. He brings a lot of levity on those days when he's not pitching, but he is already locked in to the challenge that's ahead of him," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said Thursday. "He knows how much has been talked about with Clayton, and rightfully so."
Wainwright has been stellar in his postseason career, first as a rookie reliever, on the mound to end all three rounds in the Cardinals' World Series run in 2006, then as a top-of-the-rotation starter in recent years. He is 3-3 with a 2.95 ERA in nine postseason starts.
He was 20-9 with a 2.38 ERA with 179 strikeouts and 50 walks in 227 innings, a season worthy of an ace. But the fangs came out a little bit on Thursday when Wainwright was asked (well, asked is a strong word), "Can you talk about your season, how good it was, obviously it was overshadowed by Kershaw."
Wainwright before answering the question raised his eyebrow a bit with a retort of his own: "Obviously it was?"
Wainwright has finished second twice in Cy Young Award voting, and third once.
Kershaw's first exposure to the playoffs came at ages 20-21 in 2008 and 2009, putting up a 5.87 ERA in two starts and three relief appearances in two years. But as all-caps CLAYTON KERSHAW, his postseason run began spectacularly last year, with four total runs (one earned run) in 19 innings, with 23 strikeouts and five walks, with one win, one no-decision and one loss.
But the postseason was defined, and offseason spoiled, by Kershaw's last start, allowing seven runs on 10 hits in four innings in the Cardinals' pennant-clinching game in Game 6 of the NLCS. Kershaw on Thursday tried to downplay the loss.
"Why doesn't anybody ask me what it feels like after a win in the post‑season?" Kershaw said with a mix of humor and murderous rage. "It's not fun. I think especially just because it is your last start. That's the hardest part about it. Your season ends. You always, I always, it always hangs with you until your last start or until your next start."
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly thinks Kershaw will use that loss to his advantage.
"I kind of think like everything, Clayton is going to use everything as extra incentive all the time. I think that probably that game fueled him all winter in his training, then he had a bad game early in the year against Arizona, I'm sure he used that."
The Dodgers have only lost four times in 27 Kershaw starts this season, and just once in 21 starts since the beginning of June, so that feeling hasn't come around too much in 2014.
With the 3:37 p.m. PT start and two great pitchers on the mound, the talk of shadows was all the rage, though they likely won't affect the hitters for a few hours.
"I think maybe 5 or 5:30 there might be some shadows, but hopefully it's the 8th inning by then and I'm good to go," Kershaw said.
Game 1 info
Time: 3:37 p.m. PT
TV: Fox Sports 1