LOS ANGELES -- Sandy Koufax was retired two years before Ramon Martinez was born, but the Dodgers' latest pitching prodigy knew of the Hall of Fame left-hander when he joined him in the club's record books two weeks ago.

After striking out 18 Atlanta Braves -- tying Koufax's club record and coming within one of the National League mark -- the right-handed Martinez said with a disarming grin that he was excited to see his name on the Dodger Stadium message board alongside Koufax's.

"He was great superstar," Martinez said breathlessly, "and I want to be superstar."

Martinez's overpowering performance merely reinforced what has become increasingly clear lately -- that in Orel Hershiser's injury-enforced absence, Martinez appears ready to assume the mantle of club leadership.

That may be hard to believe at first sight of the Dominican dandelion, who was a gangly 130-pound 16-year-old in Santo Domingo when he signed with the Dodgers. Martinez looks even younger than his 22 years, and his limited English and constant smile give him a sweet air of innocence.

On the mound, however, in his first full season in the majors, Martinez has become a tough hombre, especially at home.

If his 18-strikeout game against the Braves was something of a national coming-out, his 5-2 victory Saturday over San Diego signaled his continued maturation to the Dodgers staff.

It was a game in which Martinez didn't have his best stuff, and was fighting his delivery. Through three innings he had thrown more than 70 pitches and he was fortunate to have allowed only two runs to that point.

But he made some adjustments, got his curveball going and didn't allow another hit the rest of the way. He finished the game with his seventh and eighth strikeouts, and the fierce look of determination on his face was reminiscent of vintage Hershiser. He took over the club lead with a 7-3 record and 2.78 earned run average.

"He's a great competitor. He knows what he's doing," said Dodgers pitching coach Ron Perranoski.

"When a pitcher gets in a situation like that {Saturday}, it shows what he's made of," Dodgers Manager Tom Lasorda said. "That's what's made him the pitcher he is today."

Martinez, who has bulked up to 170 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame but still looks like something Dave Parker might swing in the on-deck circle, has always had a live arm that produces fastballs in the mid-90s and a fine change-up, a` la his Dominican hero, former Cincinnati Reds star Mario Soto.

As a 16-year-old he pitched for the Dominican team in the 1984 Olympics and liked what he saw of Dodger Stadium. Four years later he was pitching there in a Dodgers uniform.

In an emergency he was called up from Class AAA Albuquerque last year and tossed a shutout. It was felt all he needed to be a complete pitcher was an improved breaking ball. That has come this year.

"I told him in spring he's going to win 15 or more games," Lasorda said. "He's got a good arm and outstanding ability."

One of those who helped hone the youngster was a roving minor league instructor named Koufax. "Ramon was able to do so many things well at a young age," Koufax said after the 18-strikeout game. "I know he was struggling with the breaking ball, but it looked great the other night. The thing that most impressed me was . . . he threw so many good pitches."

Martinez, going into the Wednesday game against the Astros, led the National League with 102 strikeouts in 87 1/3 innings. He appears to take it in stride, with his customary grin.

"Eighteen, not many times that's going to happen," he said. "I go out and try and throw a very good game. I don't worry about strikeouts. It feels good leading the league {but} I don't worry about leading the league. It's not the end of the season."

As Martinez matures, he figures to fill out. But Perranoski's not sure if he'll throw harder. "He already throws 96 {mph}," he said. "How much faster do you want?"