Incomparable. You’ve probably heard that word thrown around in connection with Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, the dynamic duo that’s poised to pitch the Los Angeles Dodgers into October.

Certainly, the likes of Greinke and Kershaw don’t come around often, and even less frequently do such immense talents occupy the same rotation.

But there is a comparison for the Dodgers’ two-headed mound monster, if an imperfect one.

We’ll talk more about the “imperfect” part in a moment. First, let’s step into the wayback machine and set the coordinates for the autumn of 2001. (Yes, that was 14 years ago. And yes, you should feel old.)

That season featured a seemingly unbeatable pitching twosome who double-handedly carried a National League West club to a thrilling World Series victory.

The club was the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the arms they rode across the Fall Classic finish line belonged to Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.

Johnson (2.49 ERA, 249.2 innings pitched, 372 strikeouts) and Schilling (2.98 ERA, 256.2 IP, 293 K) dominated in the ’01 regular season, finishing first and second in National League Cy Young balloting, respectively. But they flipped a switch in the playoffs, changing their settings from “superb” to “superhuman.”

Schilling went 4-0 with a 1.12 ERA in 48.1 innings and started Games 1 and 5 of the National League Division Series, Game 3 of the National League Championship Series and Games 1, 4 and 7 of the World Series.

Johnson went 5-1 with a 1.52 ERA in 41.1 innings and started Game 2 of the NLDS, Games 1 and 5 of the NLCS and Games 2 and 6 of the World Series. Then, for good measure, he came out of the bullpen in Game 7 to get four crucial outs and set the table for Luis Gonzalez’s game-winning single off the New York Yankees‘ Mariano Rivera in the ninth.

Johnson and Schilling wound up sharing World Series MVP honors. It was frankly impossible to place one above the other, just as it was impossible to imagine Arizona sniffing the Commissioner’s Trophy without its pair of aces. Baseball is a team sport in the truest sense, but that 2001 title run—the only one in the D-Backs’ brief historywas as close as any two men can come to carrying an entire franchise on their backs.

In 2011, the 10-year anniversary of Schilling and Johnson’s impossible-unless-you-witnessed-it feat, Gonzalez offered a firsthand perspective, per’s Steve Gilbert:

It was awesome. They went out there and dominated the game. They quietly competed against each other. And you loved it when one of them had a fantastic game, because you knew the other guy was going to be amped up and ready to go and outshine the other guy. It was a great mix of those two guys. It was the yin and the yang, but they did it.

The question now is: Can Greinke and Kershaw do it too?

There are parallels. Greinke (1.65 ERA, 207.2 IP, 185 K) and Kershaw (2.18 ERA, 215 IP, 272 K) are in the midst of superlative seasons and could well finish one-two in Cy Young voting, though the Chicago Cubs‘ Jake Arrieta is in the mix.

They’re also a righty-lefty combo like Schilling and Johnson. Johnson was coming off two consecutive Cy Young seasons, and so is Kershaw, his southpaw counterpart. And, as Steve Dilbeck of the Los Angeles Times outlined, Greinke and Kershaw motivate each other with the same friendly-yet-fiery competition Gonzalez described:

After Kershaw flirted with a perfect game July 23 against the Mets in New York, [catcher Yasmani] Grandal recalled a conversation he’d had with Greinke after a spring game.

“Kershaw better watch out because I’m coming after him,” Grandal recalled Greinke telling him.

They’re pushing each other to rarefied air.

Whether they’ll push the Dodgers to their first championship in 27 years remains to be seen. But if they do, they aren’t likely to do it in the same wayor, more specifically, to the same extentas Johnson and Schilling.

Here’s a striking fact: In the 2001 postseason, Johnson and Schilling threw a combined five complete games. By contrast, Greinke and Kershaw have tossed only four complete games between them all season.

That’s the norm in today’s MLB, with its emphasis on pitch counts, relief specialists and late-game matchups. In 1998, Schilling led the majors with 15 complete games. In 1999, Johnson paced baseball with 12.

This season, four pitchers are tied for the lead with four complete games apiece.

One of those pitchers is Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants, who turned back the clock last October and threw an astounding 52.2 postseason innings, breaking the record set by Schilling in 2001.

The Giants left-hander tossed 21 frames in the World Series alone, including a gutsy Game 7 relief appearance that sealed San Francisco’s third championship in five seasons.

So it is possible, even today, to shoulder the load. More than a template, though, Bumgarner was the exception that proves the rule. Part of the reason his performance glistened so brightly—besides its utter brilliance—is that it was an anomaly among anomalies.

Likewise, what Johnson and Schilling did in ’01 is a rarity in this or any era. Having a pair of top-shelf pitchers doesn’t correlate with postseason success, as Houston Mitchell of the Los Angeles Times outlined last September:

A check of other teams with at least two dominant starters since expanded playoffs began in 1969 says otherwise. Using the criteria of at least two starting pitchers who, like Kershaw and Greinke, have a WHIP of 1.16 or lower and an ERA+ of 125 (meaning they were 25% better than the average pitcher that year), 39 other teams have two pitchers like that. One of those are the 2014 Washington Nationals, with Tanner Roark and Jordan Zimmermann. Of the other 38, only 21 made the playoffs. Only four of those teams won the World Series, with nine teams losing in the first round of the playoffs.

The 2014 Nationals didn’t end up in the World Series, and neither did the 2014 Dodgers. In fact, after sweeping the Cy Young and NL MVP awards in the regular season, Kershaw tripped over his cleats in the playoffs, going 0-2 and raising his career postseason ERA to an unsightly 5.12.

That doesn’t mean Kershaw will fade this year. But it does prove that even the greats can wilt under baseball’s brightest glare.

In all likelihood, if the Dodgers are going to spray champagne and dump confetti for the first time since the waning months of the Reagan administration, they’ll need the offense, which has scored the third-fewest runs in baseball since the All-Star break, to click. They’ll need another starting pitcher (Alex Wood? Brett Anderson?) to chip in. And their frequently wobbly bullpen must rise to the occasion.

Los Angeles is right to expect a lot from Greinke and Kershaw. They’re the studs in the stable, after all. And Dodgers fans can be forgiven for closing their eyes and letting visions of Schilling and Johnson dance in their heads.

It’s a scintillating comparison, no question.

In the end, though, some things are simply incomparable.


All statistics current as of Sept. 23 and courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

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