Column: Clayton Kershaw has surpassed Sandy Koufax as Dodgers’ greatest pitcher
Spencer Torkelson flailed, and Dodger Stadium shook.
Clayton Kershaw shoved his cap into the air, and Dodger Stadium screamed.
The cool April air was filled with a whiff of greatness Saturday night as a sweating, jabbing Dodgers lefty punched out a record and took his place at the top of a rotation of legends.
In the fourth inning against the Detroit Tigers, on an 89-mph slider that was as unhittable as it was historic, Kershaw recorded his 2,697th career strikeout to pass Don Sutton to become the Dodgers’ all-time leader.
In doing so, he cemented his status as something far more enduring.
Clayton Kershaw became the Dodgers’ all-time strikeouts leader, passing Don Sutton’s 43-year-old mark in the fourth inning of a 5-1 loss to the Tigers.
Clayton Kershaw is the greatest Dodgers pitcher ever.
It is time to shout what had previously only been whispered. It is time to believe what had previously only been imagined. It is not an insult to Sandy Koufax, but a tribute to one who has endured more seasons, accumulated more stats, and achieved at least as much magic.
It’s finally time to recognize that Kershaw is now the ace of a rotation that was once led by Koufax, the cornerstone of group that also includes Don Drysdale, Fernando Valenzuela, Dazzy Vance, Orel Hershiser and Sutton.
Kershaw owned Chavez Ravine on Saturday as he has owned it for 15 years, bringing thousands to their feet, summoning gasps and groans as he inched closer and closer to the record, finally fanning Torkelson in the fourth inning for his fourth and chart-busting K.
As the joint roared, Kershaw stepped off the mound and doffed his cap. When he returned to the rubber for the next batter, the crowd kept roaring, so he stepped off the mound again and waved his cap once more.
“Honestly I didn’t expect all that, I tried to keep pitching and they wouldn’t let me, it was definitely a special moment for sure,” Kershaw said after the Dodgers’ 5-1 defeat.
At the end of an inning in which he struck out all three hitters — of course he did — the crowd gave him a third ovation, and he tipped his cap one more time as he marched into the dugout.
This is why Kershaw, 34, returned to the Dodgers as a free agent this spring. This is why no matter where he finishes his career, Kershaw will be a Dodger forever.
“I understand that the Dodgers are an historical franchise and have been around a long time ... but I didn’t know that fans would know or honestly care that much,” said Kershaw, who gave up one run in six innings with seven strikeouts. “It was cool to see. It definitely meant a lot, for sure.”
A statue of Koufax will be unveiled at Dodger Stadium later this summer. Kershaw’s sculpture will surely one day join him, and it no longer needs to be smaller or shadowed. Believe it, because it’s true, he’s the greatest,
“For you to talk about Clayton in line with Sandy Koufax, that in itself is the greatest compliment you could get,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I think it is a great comparison ... you talk about those two guys, you can flip a coin and I’d take either.”
Again, this is not meant to diminish the historic career of one of baseball’s greatest players and one of the Dodgers’ classiest and most celebrated alumnus. For five years from 1962 to 1966, Koufax was arguably the best pitcher in baseball history.
The thing is, Kershaw has been one of baseball’s best pitchers for three times that long, 15 years of domination, devastation, resilience and ultimately redemption.
Some of their achievements have been uncannily similar. Both Kershaw and Koufax won three Cy Young Awards, both were MVPs, both won five ERA titles.
Koufax has the obvious edge in World Series championships, three to one, and his winning Game 7 start on two days’ rest in the 1965 World Series will forever make him the Dodgers great big-game pitcher.
Koufax also had four no-hitters, including one perfect game. Kershaw has thrown a no-hitter and was recently pulled out of potential perfect game in the seventh inning.
But while Koufax dominates the moments, Kershaw has surpassed him in virtually every stat. Kershaw has more strikeouts, a lower ERA, more wins, a better winning percentage, and more innings pitched.
“You look at the greats in whatever era, he’s up there with all of them,” Roberts said of Kershaw. “How the game is managed, played, expectations, whatever you want to look at, I believe he’s up there with all the greats.”
What clinches Kershaw’s place atop the historic Dodgers pitching rotation is that he has done it for so long, so consistently, in so many situations and with so much constant pressure.
The strikeout record is just latest in his legacy.
“Obviously it speaks to longevity, consistency, and just going to add to his lore, not only in Dodgers but in baseball history,” Roberts said.
Fittingly, Kershaw and Koufax are close friends. Kershaw considers Koufax a mentor, and Koufax attempts to watch Kershaw’s starts on television.
They’ve been seemingly connected since Kershaw made his major league debut on May 25, 2008 at Dodger Stadium.
The first strikeout of his career was appropriately the first batter he faced, St. Louis’ Skip Schumaker. He would record all three outs in that inning on strikeouts. After Saturday’s achievement, both Schumaker and former Dodger A.J. Ellis recorded video messages of congratulations.
“A.J. and Skip are two of my best friends in the game. ... Skip was my first strikeout a long time ago,” Kershaw said with a smile. “So, thanks, Skip, for that.”
But of course, it hasn’t always been that smooth. He collapsed in a couple of playoff series against the Cardinals. He was cheated out of World Series greatness by the Houston Astros. He came out of the bullpen in the final moments of another series and was rocked into next season by the Washington Nationals.
Is it any wonder that when he was finally part of a World Series championship in 2020, he paused while running out of the bullpen to stare into the sky in wonder and relief?
And is it any wonder that, after all he has endured, he decided to come back to the Dodgers as a free agent this spring after almost signing with his hometown Texas Rangers?
Clayton Kershaw could break Don Sutton’s Dodgers record with four strikeouts Saturday against Detroit. He sees the milestone as ‘really cool.’
The connection with the community was too strong. The lure of making history was too great. The lure of another championship was too powerful.
“I don’t want to just pitch to pitch. … I don’t have any interest in just sticking around to be around,” Kershaw said. “I want to be here to contribute to a team that might win a World Series. … If I’m not helpful I won’t be here.”
He has been more than helpful, going 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA in four starts.
“Clayton is the one who wanted to come back here only if we valued him as a top-tier starter,” Roberts said. “For us to ... give him every opportunity to come back here was a smart move ... he’s one of the greatest Dodgers to put on a Dodgers uniform, he’s got that. He’s also a performer in the here and now. It’s sort of a no-brainer.”
In the here and now Saturday night, Kershaw rose atop a long list of stars to confirm his place as the greatest Dodgers pitcher ever.
Yeah, sort of a no-brainer.
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