ATLANTA — Sandy Koufax. Fernando Valenzuela. Orel Hershiser.
And now … Clayton Kershaw?
Kershaw recently completed a regular season that ranks among the greatest in the Dodgers’ pitching-rich history, one that is expected to earn him his second Cy Young Award in the last three years.
The left-hander led the major leagues with a 1.83 earned-run average and had a 16-9 record despite receiving the worst run support among the Dodgers’ starters. His resume is missing one significant accomplishment, however.
In order for him to one day be as revered as Koufax, Valenzuela and Hershiser, he might have to deliver the Dodgers’ title-starved fan base a World Series.
“At the end of the day, unless you win the whole thing, no one remembers,” Kershaw said.
Kershaw’s run at October immortality is expected to start Thursday, when he faces the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field in Game 1 of the National League division series.
“We want to see what a guy can do on the big stage,” Manager Don Mattingly said. “Fair or not fair, it’s probably the way to push you to that next level.”
The last time Kershaw pitched the first game of a playoff series was four years ago, in the 2009 National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Kershaw was 21 years old.
That Dodgers team didn’t have an ace. But with his arm, curveball, work ethic and competitiveness, Kershaw, who was 8-8 with a 2.79 ERA, was on the verge of becoming one. Everyone was certain of that, especially then-manager Joe Torre, who was the first to draw comparisons between Kershaw and Koufax.
So Torre gambled, hoping Kershaw could somehow move forward the hands of time.
He did, but only for four innings. Kershaw unraveled in a five-run fifth inning. The Dodgers lost the game, and the series.
Kershaw today is better than the Kershaw of that day, Mattingly said.
“He was a two-pitch guy – he was a fastball and curveball guy,” said Mattingly, who was a hitting coach for the 2009 Dodgers. “In this league, it’s tough to get that curveball called.”
As a result, Mattingly said, hitters “could sit on” a fastball. And Kershaw also had a tendency to favor pitching to one side of home plate, the manager recalled.
“It made him a one-pitch guy, in hitters’ minds,” Mattingly said.
Over the next three seasons, the Dodgers failed to return to the postseason. But the years weren’t a waste for Kershaw, who developed into one of the top pitchers in baseball.
He added a slider, then a changeup. He learned how to better hold runners on base. Then the entire repertoire came together.
“Four years in the big leagues, you learn a lot,” Kershaw said. “Every time out, you learn something new. You tack that on for four years, I feel like I’m definitely prepared.”
His historic 2013 season was evidence of that.
Kershaw became the fifth pitcher in the last 20 years to finish the season with an ERA under 2.00. He is the only Dodgers pitcher other than Koufax to do that since the franchise moved to Los Angeles in 1958. Kershaw’s 10 scoreless starts were the most in baseball.
From his days playing for the San Diego Padres, Adrian Gonzalez knew Kershaw was tough to hit. Gonzalez gained an even greater appreciation of Kershaw playing alongside him this season.
“You think he’s got this, ‘Here-it-is-hit-it’ mentality, but actually he has command and he can change speeds,” Gonzalez said. “There’s a thought process behind it. It makes it really tough.”
Kershaw was so dominant that if he gave up, say, two runs in six innings, his teammates would be asked if something was wrong with him.
“Isn’t that funny?” catcher A.J. Ellis asked.
What makes Kershaw the top pitcher in baseball in Mattingly’s view is that seasons like this are becoming a regular occurrence.
Kershaw became only the third pitcher in major league history to lead the entire majors in ERA in three consecutive seasons. The others to do it were Greg Maddux (1993-1995) and Lefty Grove (1929-1931).
Kershaw also became only the fourth Dodgers pitcher to lead the National League in strikeouts in multiple seasons. Kershaw’s first strikeout crown came in his Cy Young Award season in 2011.
“Every year, you’re going to talk about different guys,” Mattingly said. “This year, it’s '[Matt] Harvey is the best.’ Last year, it was [Stephen] Strasburg. Every year, Kersh is right there.
“I think that’s basically what we’re seeing. All of a sudden, it’s every year. It’s almost every start. If he’s not the best, you’re going to have to sell me on who’s better. It’s hard to say somebody’s better than that.”
Kershaw tries not to think about his pitching performances in terms of historical context.
“I understand that those guys came before me and this organization has a lot of pride in tradition,” he said. “I’m not trying to take anything away from that. For me, it’s too hard to think about all of that and continue to pitch.”
So he just thinks about the pitching.
If success continues through October, that will be enough.