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Column: Clayton Kershaw still trails Sandy Koufax when it comes to postseason legacy

Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw delivers a pitch during a 16-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday.
Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw delivers a pitch during a 16-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

He was scrappy, shifty, Sandy.

With a style that surely made the legend proud, Clayton Kershaw battled a bunch of heel-swinging kids from Toronto on Tuesday night to pass Sandy Koufax in career victories just a couple of weeks after passing him in career strikeouts.

In the Dodgers’ 16-3 victory over the Blue Jays at Dodger Stadium, Kershaw won his 166th game and cemented his stature as the greatest regular-season pitcher in Dodgers history.

But it’s not enough. It can’t be enough. And you know why.

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It’s the elephant on the diamond. It’s the unfinished sentence on the resume. It’s a shame Kershaw can’t enjoy a milestone passage in this mythical race against Koufax without bringing it up, but it’s the reality that has annually hit Dodgers fans like a Kershaw plunk on the ribs.

Clayton Kershaw passes Sandy Koufax on the Dodgers’ all-time wins list and benefits from a deluge of offense in a 16-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays.

From April to September, no Dodgers pitcher has ever had a better career than Kershaw, and he’s accomplished that by besting the best. He not only has more wins and strikeouts than Koufax — he now ranks fifth overall in club wins counting the pre-1900 era — he also has a better winning percentage, better ERA, and fewer walks and homers allowed per nine innings.

But if Kershaw hopes to completely step out of Koufax’s shadow, he needs an October. He needs a World Series championship. At least one. Maybe this one?

The greatest pitcher in Dodgers history remains Koufax, and the only way Kershaw can change that is to step up one autumn and take it from him.

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The differences between the two during crunch time are staggering. The Koufax victories are still treasured. The Kershaw losses are still heartbreaking.

Koufax won two World Series MVP awards. Kershaw has a 5.40 career World Series ERA.

Sandy Koufax points at the Dodger Stadium scoreboard after throwing a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965.
Sandy Koufax points at the Dodger Stadium scoreboard after throwing a perfect game against the Chicago Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965.
(Harold P. Matosian / Associated Press)

Koufax had a 0.95 postseason ERA. Kershaw has a 4.32 postseason ERA.

Koufax allowed fewer hits, fewer walks and fewer home runs per nine innings in the postseason. And while Koufax was part of four World Series title teams, Kershaw has yet to win the big one.

“Oh, it’s certainly fair to compare the two,” Manager Dave Roberts said before the game. “Clayton over the longevity of his career has earned that right to be compared to Sandy Koufax.”

But, I asked, what about October?

“That’s a tough one,” Roberts said. “They’re both great pitchers. One is a Hall of Famer, one is a soon-to-be Hall of Famer. Right now, I think we’re focusing on 2019, and in the postseason, I expect Clayton to go out there and pitch the way he’s capable of pitching.”

The Los Angeles Dodgers are getting closer Kenley Jansen ready for the playoffs by not pitching him in certain save situations over the next six weeks.

Kershaw needs do that. He has a history of not doing that. Each of his 166 regular-season victories, however dramatic, exists in a universe where his postseason losses are far more memorable.

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You might not remember who made the last out in Kershaw’s magnificent 15-strikeout, no-hitter against the Colorado Rockies in 2014. (Hint: It was a strikeout of Cory Dickerson.) But many remember that in October of that year, it was St. Louis’ Matt Adams who took Kershaw deep to knock the Dodgers out of the postseason.

Thoughts of all those wondrous June nights have been shoved aside by those awful October evenings. The blowout struggles against the Cardinals in 2013 and 2014. The two blown leads in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series against the Houston Astros. The 0-2 record with a 7.36 ERA against Boston in last year’s World Series.

“I think comparing the two pitchers is apples and oranges. It’s two different generations,” said former Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser. “They were both great in their generation, and taking the argument any further is kind of water cooler, coffee pot, barroom talk. It’s really hard.”

Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw returns to the dugout.
Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw returns to the dugout after retiring the Blue Jays in the fifth inning on Tuesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Hershiser, who epitomized his “Bulldog’’ nickname during one of the greatest postseason runs in baseball history in 1988 to lead the Dodgers to their last World Series championship, acknowledged baseball’s universal truth about October.

“It’s definitely the height of the baseball season,” Hershiser said. “It’s catapulted some resumes to the top, and taken the luster off other resumes.”

Kershaw, 31, will indeed be voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame on the first ballot. The Dodgers will surely eventually erect his statue beyond the center-field wall, right next to the Koufax statue that is being built. As a star L.A. athlete for life, he will be viewed as a shaggy-bearded version of Kobe Bryant, with one exception.

His legacy is missing that ring.

This could finally be the season. You’ve heard that before, but this could be real. Kershaw has never been surrounded with a better team. He’s never been part of a deeper rotation. He is feeling healthy for the first time in several years. And he’s been able to adjust his pitch selection to overcome his declining velocity. He might not be the staff ace anymore, but he has once again become the staff cornerstone.

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This was obvious on a Tuesday night when he jabbed and feinted his way around the perpetually off-balance Blue Jays. In six innings, he allowed three runs on six hits with six strikeouts and three walks, raising his ERA to only 2.71.

All three runs were leadoff homers — two by rookie Bo Bichette — but in each inning, Kershaw pushed back to shut down the Blue Jays. Meanwhile, of course, the Dodgers’ offense backed him with its usual gazillion (five) home runs.

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- THURSDAY, MARCH 28, 2019: Dodgers star pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who is on the
Will Clayton Kershaw finally taste World Series success this October?
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s special for sure,” Kershaw said of the landmark win. “What Sandy means to this organization, what Sandy means to me personally, it’s an incredible thing, something I never thought was going to happen ... something that helps me be able to look back on it when it’s all said and done and just be thankful I got to be here.”

Other than the milestone victory, the other impressive statistic was that, for the 22nd time in 22 starts, he went at least six innings. The efficient Kershaw is back, at least as far back as Kershaw is ever going to be. This being a different era, he’ll never match Koufax in complete games — Koufax holds a comical 137-25 lead — but the only thing that matters in this duel is completed seasons.

Koufax always finished strong. Just once, Kershaw needs to do the same.


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