Clayton Kershaw may be having his best season yet — and that’s saying something

He didn’t say much during the no-hitter, and unless he’s asked, Clayton Kershaw keeps quiet about the trips to Africa he takes during offseasons, too.

“I’m not a big talker,” the Los Angeles Dodgers’s soft-spoken ace said last week, the day before his latest dominant start.

On June 18, Kershaw sat between innings mostly alone in the home dugout at Dodger Stadium, his teammates avoiding unnecessary conversation and pressure as he assembled the definitive start in an already impressive career. Kershaw is 26 and already has two Cy Young awards, but until his start against the Rockies, he had never pitched a no-hitter.

The early innings came and went quickly, five strikeouts his first time through Colorado’s lineup and an unusual sensation in the air. “It’s kind of rare,” Dodgers starter Dan Haren said, “that you get the feeling for a no-hitter in the fourth inning or so.”

Kershaw finished it, a 15-strikeout no-hitter in one of the most overpowering performances in years. It heightened the notion that Kershaw is perhaps the game’s most dominant pitcher, and though he missed April with a back injury, this season might somehow be his best yet. He takes an 8-2 record into Sunday’s start against the Cardinals. His strikeouts are up and his walks are down, and his 2.24 ERA isn’t much higher than his career-best 1.83 in 2013, when he was named the National League’s best pitcher for the second time in three years.

“Koufax-esque,” said Orel Hershiser, the MVP of the 1988 World Series, the last time the Dodgers made it that far. Indeed, Kershaw’s dominance, particularly at such a young age, has been compared before with Sandy Koufax, the legendary Dodgers pitcher. And at this point, it’s difficult to think of a better comparison.

Kershaw grew up idolizing Andy Pettitte, that left-handed surgeon who relied on location and surprise rather than an overpowering fastball. Pettitte was a student of pitching, and Kershaw liked that.

Back in Dallas, Kershaw was a promising pitcher, but until colleges began sending him letters, he figured his baseball career would end after high school. Then he grew, eventually reaching 6 feet 3 and 225 pounds, which helped his fastball reach the mid-90s. He kept studying pitches and how hitters reacted, the way Pettitte always had, and when the 2006 draft arrived, the Dodgers selected him seventh overall.

He reported to Vero Beach, Fla., to begin his climb through the minor leagues, and his girlfriend, Ellen, whom Kershaw had known since eighth grade, enrolled at Texas A&M. They were in different parts of the country when Ellen saw a television program about malnourished children in Zambia, a southern African nation ravaged by HIV and AIDS. She traveled there, more than 8,000 miles each way, and when she returned she told Kershaw about the Zambian orphans and the way they lived. They thought they recognized their blessings, but no, he would have to see it himself.

They were married in December 2010, Kershaw having reached the majors two years earlier, and they honeymooned not in Paris or some pristine Caribbean resort but Lusaka, Zambia.

“Eye-opening,” Kershaw said. “You walk around the villages, and just the living conditions that these kids and families are coming from and it just shows you how fortunate we are.”

Kershaw played catch during the week-long trip, toying with a new slider that he and Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt had been discussing. Kershaw threw it against a pad and to a few other travelers, trying new grips and hoping it would soon feel as comfortable as his curveball.

He also met an orphan girl named Hope, and when he returned to America, she was all he wanted to discuss. He and Ellen returned a year later and financed the Arise Home, an orphanage that provides food, supplies and guidance.

“They probably would’ve died if they hadn’t gotten the help and treatment and the food, everything they needed,” said Kershaw, who has now traveled to Zambia four times. “You see that, they’re going to school now. Basically, they just have a chance.”

Kershaw didn’t speak much with teammates about the home’s growth and how it now houses 10 children, and with so much else to talk about during the season, where was the time?

He signed a seven-year, $215 million contract in January, and three months later, something popped in his back. He strained a muscle, and careful to protect their best pitcher and biggest investment, the Dodgers shut him down for five starts.

When he returned, he struck out nine Washington Nationals and took the win. He hasn’t lost a game since May 28.

“He’s really the whole package,” Haren said. “A lot of guys have great stuff, but they’re not able to command it. He’s able to really attack hitters the way he wants to.”

That slider, which he honed in Zambia, has since replaced Kershaw’s curve as his most devastating pitch, and six days after his no-hitter, he struck out eight Kansas City Royals and, with a 2-0 win, extended his scoreless innings streak to 21. He said his mind is never far from Africa, even during a potentially historic season — and a chance at his third Cy Young in four years, something no Dodgers pitcher has done since, of course, Koufax.

“As far as getting better,” Hershiser said, “you can’t say somebody can get better from where he’s at right now.”

Kent Babb is a sports features writer for The Washington Post.
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