Clayton Kershaw solidifies his place as the best Dodger of them all

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Clayton Kershaw stands alone in the Los Angeles Dodgers record book, passing Don Sutton for most strikeouts in franchise history on Saturday

The first strikeout came 5,088 days ago, a blazing 95 mph fastball from a 20-year-old with a golden left arm. On Saturday night, before a sellout crowd of 52,600, that same pitcher, no longer just a kid but a 34-year-old future Hall of Famer, stood on the same mound at Dodger Stadium and made history for this iconic franchise.

When Clayton Kershaw got the Tigers’ Spencer Torkelson to chase an 0-2 slider in the top of the fourth inning, breaking Don Sutton’s franchise record with his 2,697th career strikeout, he made clear what was already firmly established: Kershaw is the greatest pitcher to ever don Dodger blue.

Sandy Koufax had a run unlike any pitcher in history. Fernando Valenzuela had “Fernandomania.” Orel Hershiser had his legendary shutout streak. But no Dodgers pitcher has done it as well, as consistently, and for as long as Kershaw. Since that first strikeout 14 years ago, Kershaw has slowly crept his way into the franchise record books. Every fastball, every curveball falling from the sky, every slider disappearing into the dirt, brought him closer to immortality. He reached the summit on Saturday.

Kershaw vs. Koufax debate is settled

We can only guess the heights Koufax, the pitcher Kershaw is most often compared to, would’ve reached if fate played out differently. Over a five-year period between 1962-66, Koufax won more than 75 percent of his starts, had a 1.95 ERA and 0.926 WHIP, and pitched 33 shutouts. It was a period of dominance unheralded in modern baseball history. Willie Stargell once described facing Koufax as “trying to drink coffee with a fork.”

Then he was gone. Years earlier, Koufax developed arthritis in his elbow—probably not from throwing baseballs, but from an injury suffered while playing basketball in high school. His arm was a ticking timebomb. He would stick his left arm into a bucket of ice after every start and take an anti-inflammatory drug to numb the pain. Finally, at the age of 30, coming off perhaps his best season in 1966, he had enough and stepped away from the game.

In any comparison with Koufax, Kershaw has longevity on his side. He’s four years older than Koufax was when he retired and still going. He’s thrown more innings, started nearly 80 more games, and has more career wins (188 to 165).

He even had his own run rivaling what Koufax did in the 1960s. From 2011-17, Kershaw won 74 percent of his starts with a 2.10 ERA. His 0.913 WHIP in that time was better than Koufax in his prime. He matched Koufax’s three Cy Young Awards. Kershaw’s 2.31 ERA in the 2010s was the lowest of any pitcher in any decade during the Live Ball Era. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander will join Kershaw in Cooperstown one day; Kershaw’s ERA was 80 points lower than theirs for an entire decade.

He was also pitching in a different game. Koufax had several factors playing in his favor. In 1963, MLB increased the size of the strike zone from the armpit to the shoulder. The mound Koufax pitched off of was five inches taller. His run also coincided with the Dodgers moving out of the hitter-friendly L.A. Coliseum to Chavez Ravine. Koufax had an other-worldly 1.37 ERA at Dodger Stadium, but a much more mortal 2.57 ERA on the road. Kershaw also benefitted from the friendly pitching confines of Dodger Stadium, but his splits during that seven-year stretch are less extreme (1.77 at home; 2.46 on the road).

Kershaw already passed Koufax for most wins and strikeouts by a Dodgers left-hander in 2019. He took the mound on Saturday just three behind Sutton’s franchise record of 2,696. It took Sutton nearly 1,400 more innings in a Dodgers uniform to reach that total. Kershaw matched him in the third inning then, as the clock read 8:09 p.m. at Dodger Stadium, he struck out Torkelson—who was just eight years old when Kershaw recorded his first strikeout—to stand alone in franchise history.

Kershaw wanted to keep pitching but had to acknowledge the applause he got from his teammates and the fans. His wife Ellen and their four children joined in the celebration. For the ever-selfless Kershaw, the response to the record, and not the record itself, is what he’ll remember about that moment.

“Any time you get to do anything individual record-wise, the people around you to help you celebrate are what matters the most. To have my teammates care about that, to have my family here care about that, and to see the fans care about it as much as they did. All those things make it special,” he said. “It was a great moment for me personally, and I’ll remember that for a while, for sure.”

From Ebbets Field to Dodger Stadium, from Flatbush to Chavez Ravine, Kershaw stands alone in Dodgers history. More than 470 pitchers have started a game for the Dodgers since the beginning of the 20th century. None of them have been quite like Kershaw.

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