LOS ANGELES -- Sandy Koufax didn't finish a season with an ERA below 3.00 until he was 26 years old or pitch in a postseason game until he was 23.

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2009 record: 95-67
2008 record: 84-78
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WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
Loney: Taking good swings
Kuo: Long road back
Thome: Back in Philly
Loney: Building resume
Bullpen: Led by Broxton
Torre: Rep precedes him
Blake: Chemistry guy
Kershaw: Game 1 nod?
Dodgers: Eyes on prize
Kemp: Path of the pros
Furcal: Back healthy
Kershaw: Like Koufax
Hudson: Keeping head up
Billingsley: Unknown role
Ethier: Slump over
Torre: Tough decisions
Kershaw: Elite comparisons
Kemp: Nearly elite
Kershaw: Path to the pros
Billingsley: Fate in balance
Ethier: Aims to improve
Torre: Back to playoffs
Kershaw: Ready to rock
Rotation: Plenty of options
Kemp: Chasing LA history
Bullpen: Dominant pair
Honeycutt: Pitching guru
Kemp: Tools to match talent
Ethier: Walk-off wonder
Billingsley: Vying for spot
Ethier/Kemp: Dynamic duo
Torre: Another pennant race
Pierre: Receives high praise
Kershaw: Beyond his years

And since Koufax is the benchmark, it helps put in perspective where the career of left-hander Clayton Kershaw is rapidly headed.

Kershaw is only 21 and he hasn't been named to start any playoff games for the Dodgers yet, but neither has anybody else. It's also hard to imagine he won't be, considering the 2.89 ERA that's eighth in the league, or the .201 opponents batting average that's best in the league.

Kershaw is rushing his way back into game-starting shape after missing nearly three weeks with a separated non-throwing shoulder. If and when he does make that playoff start, he would be the youngest Dodgers pitcher to start a postseason game since Fernando Valenzuela, who was 20 in 1981 when he pitched the Dodgers to a World Series win and Fernandomania engulfed the Southland.

Kershaw knows about Koufax; even worked with him a couple times in Spring Training. He said the only time he's seen Valenzuela pitch is on the stadium DodgerVision highlights.

"I know he was Rookie of the Year," said Kershaw, who is then told that in the same season Valenzuela won the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards.

"And?" Kershaw asks. "In the same year? I didn't know that. That's ridiculous."

Kershaw is like Koufax, a power pitcher with a tendency on the wild side, but he's also unlike Koufax, who signed at 19 and took years to harness the talent. Kershaw has moved into the rotation quicker than Koufax, who came up with the loaded Brooklyn Boys of Summer club and was given the ball sporadically in his early years.

"We've seen Clayton mature this year," said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt. "Not so much physically, but in the mental aspect of the game. We always knew he had the stuff. But now he's throwing with a higher percentage of strikes.

"There are still bumps in the road. But he really put together quite a stretch, as good as anybody. He had the lowest ERA in the league during that time and has the lowest opponents batting average on the season. He's still got to cut down on his number of walks. But his stuff is so good, they're not going to hit him much.

"The biggest similarity to Fernando is they both want to be out there, they want to be in the mix. They have no fear. They believe they can get anybody out. Fernando could paint. He wasn't a power pitcher. He was much more polished. And the screwball was such a weapon. Kershaw has the devastating fastball."

Valenzuela was a marksman with a trick screwball who knew how to pitch like a veteran.

"A child in a man's body," said teammate and current broadcaster Rick Monday. "What he has in common with Kershaw is that both are like sponges, soaking up information to get better."

Kershaw came to the big leagues with that fastball and overhand curve. He's got the makings of a changeup and slider, but doesn't always have the confidence to use them. That's what he worked on during a bullpen session Wednesday.

"I need to have a regular start Saturday, whatever that is, 100 pitches, six innings, seven, whatever," Kershaw said. "I need to command my breaking ball. Watching the game in Pittsburgh, I could have been out of some innings if I threw the breaking ball for strikes.

"I didn't throw the changeup in Pittsburgh. That's my fault. I should have thrown it. I can't explain why I didn't. It's the pitcher's responsibility to call the pitches you want. The slider, I've been fiddling with it a couple months now. It's easier to locate for me and just one more thing the hitter has to worry about."