Kershaw cementing place in Dodgers history
Lefty's season on the mound rekindles memories of Hershiser
LOS ANGELES -- In 1988, Orel surgery was all the rage in Southern California. An unimposing, slender 6-foot-3 pitcher with a scholarly appearance, Orel Hershiser used all of his tools to drill his way into baseball history with arguably the greatest season on the mound by a Dodger not named Sandy Koufax.
Clayton Kershaw -- a lefty most often associated with Koufax for alliterative and aesthetic reasons -- is positioned to do for Dodgers Nation what Hershiser achieved a quarter-century ago: create a magical ending to a storybook season.
So far, so great.
By virtually any measure excluding wins and losses, which swing with forces beyond control of the artist, Kershaw, at 25 in his sixth season, is the best pitcher in the Major Leagues -- just as Hershiser was 25 years ago.
The Dodgers haven't been in a World Series since Hershiser drove them to their destination with his 23-8 record, 2.26 ERA and 1.052 WHIP (walks and hits per inning) in 267 innings in 1988. Eclipsing the longstanding record of the great Don Drysdale, Hershiser finished on his record 59-inning scoreless run with a perfect September (six starts, 55 innings) after four scoreless innings in Montreal in his final August start.
Carrying all that momentum into October, Hershiser had a postseason for the ages. In six appearances, he was 3-0 with a save and a 1.05 ERA in 42 2/3 innings, winning the MVP Award for the National League Championship Series and the World Series.
It ended in Oakland with Hershiser striking out A's infielder Tony Phillips to wrap up a 5-2 victory in Game 5. Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire appeared as stunned as the rest of the baseball world.
"As long as we live," Game 1 World Series savior Kirk Gibson said in the afterglow of the title, "none of us will ever see any pitcher accomplish what Orel has done."
Kershaw, with his MLB-best 1.72 ERA, can become the first pitcher since Greg Maddux to win ERA titles in three consecutive seasons. If he keeps his ERA at 1.87 or lower, it will be the best among NL starters since Maddux's 1.63 in 1995. Kershaw also is the leader in WHIP at 0.882.
Kershaw's secondary numbers are better than Hershiser's were in 1988, almost across the board per nine innings: 5.9 hits, 0.4 homers, 2.0 walks, 8.7 strikeouts and a 4.28 K/BB ratio. Hershiser: 7.0 hits, 0.6 homers, 2.5 walks, 6.0 Ks and a 2.44 K/BB ratio.
What Kershaw has not been getting is consistent offensive support: 3.57 runs per start, tied for 10th lowest in the Majors. Hershiser had 4.03 per start in 1988.
While Kershaw has not delivered 59 consecutive scoreless innings and is not going to win 23 games, as Hershiser did, Clayton has the right stuff, tenacity and poise to take the Dodgers where Orel did: all the way home to a civic celebration.
"I tell everybody that as good as you think he is," teammate Josh Beckett said, "he is better than that. And that's hard to do, because everybody thinks he's really good."
Beckett has focused intently on Kershaw as a television viewer since having a procedure on July 10 to remove a rib that was pressing a nerve and causing numbness in his pitching hand. A force behind World Series champions with the 2003 Marlins and '07 Red Sox, Beckett has seen Kershaw emerge as the favorite for his second NL Cy Young Award and a prominent NL Most Valuable Player Award candidate.
"I know he hasn't been doing it that long, but he could possibly be the best pitcher ever -- he's that good," Beckett said. "Coming over here last year [from Boston], I knew he was good. But he exceeded my expectations."
A trait shared by Hershiser and Kershaw is a flaming competitive nature concealed beneath a normally cool and often playful exterior. Manager Don Mattingly has felt the heat from Kershaw on several occasions when he has brought the hook sooner than Clayton wanted.
"Oh, yeah," Mattingly said, "I've seen that look in Kersh's eyes."
Keeping his pitch counts under reasonable control is important in the long haul. Kershaw is averaging 105.6 pitches per start, eighth highest in the Majors. Hershiser, mastering the art of early-count outs, averaged 103.3 pitches per start in 1988.
That served the Dodgers well in October, under extreme duress. When Hershiser emerged from the bullpen to retire Kevin McReynolds for the final out in Game 4 of the NLCS -- having gone seven innings (one unearned run) the previous day -- it was one of the most compelling moments in postseason play.
Kershaw hasn't pitched in the postseason since 2009, when he was 21 and putting the elements of his game together. His postseason numbers from '08 and '09 -- five games, two starts, 0-1, 5.87 ERA -- figure to improve dramatically when he returns to the big stage.
The 2013 Dodgers are considerably more formidable than the 1988 outfit that had three players with double figures in home runs (Gibson, Mike Marshall, John Shelby ) but managed to defy all odds.
That was a classic Tommy Lasorda team, stoking its fires with the volatile manager's motivational speeches. The most underrated aspect of that championship club was its collective baseball IQ.
"We had guys who knew how to play the game," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, their catcher. "I think that team was a lot more talented than it got credit for; all the pieces fit together just right."
The 1988 Dodgers thrived in pressure situations with timely hitting and quality defense. But the foundation was a wonderful pitching staff, with Tim Belcher and Tim Leary behind Hershiser in the rotation and closer Jay Howell leading a deep bullpen.
Fernando Valenzuela and Don Sutton were part of the rotation until injury and age caught up with two of the franchise's greatest pitchers. Valenzuela made his last start of the season on July 14; Sutton, the future Hall of Famer, bowed out on Aug. 9. John Tudor, acquired from the Cards for Pedro Guerrero, provided quality work down the stretch.
Mattingly's pitching staff has the tools to be even better than Lasorda's.
Zack Greinke is the game's best No. 2 starter. Ricky Nolasco has been brilliant since arriving in an inspired deal with the Marlins by general manager Ned Colletti. Hyun-Jin Ryu shows the poise that bodes well for the postseason.
The emergence of Kenley Jansen as a confident, dominant closer is a pivotal development. The intriguing arrival of Brian Wilson adds another possible lockdown setup man to go with rookie find Paco Rodriguez, J.P. Howell and Ronald Belisario -- a fine lefty-righty mix with contrasting styles.
After a 46-10 run that was simply impossible to sustain, the Dodgers have experienced a lull, along with Wednesday's highly publicized benching of Yasiel Puig. But this is a veteran team with an ideal blend of personalities, hot and cool, and a collection of talent that is the envy of fans everywhere.
It also is a team blessed with the kind of dominant pitcher, in Clayton Kershaw, who has been known to perform impressive surgery in October.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.