ST. LOUIS — In the champagne-spray delirium of the victorious Los Angeles clubhouse beneath Dodger Stadium on Monday night, there came a quiet, white-haired visitor. It was Sandy Koufax, and he was there to hug the neck of the best pitcher on the planet.
Clayton Kershaw shares with Koufax a uniform, a left-handedness and a minuscule career ERA — Koufax’s (2.76) being the lowest of any lefty in the last 75 years, and Kershaw’s (2.60) the lowest of any active starting pitcher with at least 1,000 innings pitched. Koufax earned three Cy Young Awards; Kershaw is expected to win his second next month.
But this month, Kershaw, 25, is trying to close the gap between himself and his forefather in one important regard for which they are still far apart: October glory. Koufax helped the Dodgers win three World Series titles, amassing a 0.95 ERA in eight appearances. Kershaw — born the year the Dodgers last won a World Series, 1988 — has yet to make it to one.
This National League Championship Series, which gets underway Friday night at Busch Stadium between the Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals, brings together two of the most storied franchises in the Senior Circuit — with 36 combined World Series appearances (18 apiece) between them, some of the most iconic home-white uniforms in the game and boatloads of history and tradition, much of it centered on the raised mound of dirt in the middle of the diamond.
And this fall, in both Los Angeles and St. Louis, fans have been treated to pitching performances worthy of those rich traditions. Kershaw struck out 12 Atlanta Braves over seven innings in a victory in Game 1 of the division series, then came back four days later — on three days’ rest — and gave the Dodgers six strong innings in their clinching victory in Game 4.
For St. Louis, staff ace Adam Wainwright delivered a pair of gems to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates — including a complete game in the Game 5 clincher — and 22-year-old phenom Michael Wacha carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning of Game 4, before settling for a 71 / 3-inning, one-hit victory.
After Zack Greinke and Joe Kelly face off in Game 1 Friday night, Saturday’s Game 2 features an intriguing Kershaw-Wacha matchup. Following a travel day Sunday, Wainwright will start for the Cardinals against an as-yet-unnamed Dodgers foe Monday night at Dodger Stadium.
In Los Angeles, Koufax is the standard by which any great pitcher is compared. In St. Louis, the standard is Bob Gibson. They were brilliant in every month, but their legends were cemented in October, back in the days when the postseason consisted of just one round — the World Series. Between 1963 and 1968, either Koufax’s Dodgers or Gibson’s Cardinals were the NL representative in six straight World Series.
In 1965, Koufax famously started Games 2, 5 and 7 of the World Series — the latter starts coming on three days’ and two days’ rest, respectively — going the distance for shutouts in Games 5 and 7 against Minnesota in one of the greatest postseason pitching performances in history. Two years later, Gibson started Games 1, 4 and 7 for the Cardinals — the latter two on three days’ rest — and delivered complete-game victories in each one.
These days, of course, such a thing is unheard of. It was a major news development when the Dodgers moved Kershaw up by one day to start Game 4 of the NL Division Series on three days’ rest. As it happened, Kershaw allowed a pair of unearned runs in six innings against the Braves, and stood to take the loss had the Dodgers not come back to win on Juan Uribe’s eighth-inning home run.
But Kershaw is a throwback — to the extent that modern norms will allow — to the days when aces pitched deep into games. When Kershaw completes the first inning of his first NLCS start, he will have passed the 250-inning mark for his season, regular and postseason combined, making him the first Dodgers pitcher to reach that threshold since Kevin Brown in 1999. (Koufax, incidentally, threw a staggering 3592 / 3 innings in 1965, at the age of 29, and would last only one more season.)
Is Kershaw the second coming of Koufax? “He’s not the next me,” Koufax told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s the first Clayton Kershaw. He doesn’t deserve to be compared to anybody.”
He said it as if it were distasteful, but what pitcher wouldn’t want to be compared to Sandy Koufax? Kershaw can only hope the comparisons continue, right through October.