Sandy Koufax made a rare visit to Dodger Stadium on Tuesday and you couldn't blame him if he felt as if he was looking into a mirror. Because there on the mound was Koufax's real-life doppelganger, Clayton Kershaw.
Sure, it's become a well-worn theme to compare the two left-handers, who really don't look much like one another. But put Kershaw in the middle of the diamond with a baseball in his hand and he sure pitches like Koufax — never more so than Tuesday, when he held the Washington Nationals to three hits over eight innings in a 4-1 Dodgers victory.
Consider the numbers:
With eight strikeouts Kershaw reached 202 for the season, topping 200 for a fifth consecutive year. Koufax is the only other L.A. Dodger to do that.
By holding the Nationals to one run, Kershaw lowered his season earned-run average to 1.70. Koufax's 1.73 in 1966 is the best mark since the Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn.
And with his 17th victory of the season Kershaw (17-3) leads the majors in wins, something Koufax did three times.
Add it all up and Kershaw would seem to be a lock to win his third Cy Young Award, matching the number Koufax won.
"He spoils us for sure," Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly said of Kershaw, who is 14-1 in his last 17 starts. "It's good that people who don't get to see him every day talk about him so the whole rest of the country can hear about him and see him.
"We see it all the time. He's just been so valuable for us."
But perhaps most important for these Dodgers, whose division lead over the San Francisco Giants has shrunk to two games, is the fact that, like Koufax, Kershaw puts the brakes on long losing streaks.
Tuesday marked the 13th time Kershaw has taken the mound following a Dodgers loss this season and the team has won all but one of those games. That's a big reason why the Dodgers' longest losing streak this season is three games, marking only the third time in franchise history the team has gone this deep into a season without losing at least four games in a row.
No team Koufax played on managed to do that.
"It's the importance of pitching," said Mattingly, who has seen his Dodgers win 19 times in Kershaw's 23 starts. "Good pitching is really dominant."
Kershaw was certainly that against the Nationals, retiring 17 of 18 batters after Wilson Ramos' leadoff single in the second. Bryce Harper snapped the string — and the shutout — with a long homer to right-center with two outs in the seventh.
By then the game had largely been decided, and it was one of the major differences between Koufax and Kershaw that helped decide it. While Koufax was a terrible hitter — his career average was .097 and he struck out in half his at-bats — Kershaw works hard at the offensive side of his game.
That paid off Tuesday, when, with one out in the fifth inning of a scoreless game, Kershaw singled to center, then went from first to third on Harper, the Nationals' strong-armed center fielder, when Dee Gordon followed with another single to the same spot.
That allowed Gordon to take second and both would later score. An inning later Juan Uribe doubled the margin with two-run homer, making it 4-0 Dodgers.
"I don't know if that was the smartest decision," Kershaw admitted afterward. "I don't get that opportunity much. That was probably a dumb play looking back on it, but it worked out."
It also left Kershaw looking a bit like an overexcited Little Leaguer, pitching the rest of the game with a dirt-caked uniform.
"It's fun to be a baseball player and do all facets of the game," he said. "When there's a little dirt on your jersey it actually feels like you contributed."
His teammates agree.
"It pains me to say this, but Clayton truly is a baseball player," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "The way he swings the bat, the way he runs the bases, the way he fields his position. He's an athlete.
"Nothing he does on the baseball field ever truly amazes me because he's prepared for any situation that could arise."