Sandy Koufax was at his best when the Dodgers needed it most.
Koufax won National League pennant-clinching games for them in 1965 and ’66, his final two seasons. He recorded a 0.95 ERA in eight World Series starts, including four complete games. Two of them sealed Series championships for Los Angeles.
Predictably, rating Koufax’s top 10 performances is simple. Almost any collection of games he pitched from 1961-66 would qualify as ranking among his best. A sample list follows, with the legend celebrating his 86th birthday on Thursday:
1. Bringing the heat
Oct. 14, 1965
Koufax looked vulnerable in the World Series finale against the Twins, walking two batters in the first inning of Game 7. By the time he issued his third free pass, which put Rich Rollins aboard following Frank Quilici’s one-out, fifth-inning double, it was obvious that Koufax lacked command of his curveball, an essential element in his pitching repertoire.
Angry with himself, Koufax told catcher John Roseboro that he simply would rely on fastballs for the remainder of the afternoon. Koufax escaped that jam to launch a streak of 12 consecutive batters retired. Asked by Dodgers manager Walter Alston to work on two days’ rest even though 23-game winner Don Drysdale was available after a three-day break, Koufax finished with a three-hitter in the Dodgers’ 2-0 triumph.
2. Establishing his dominance
Oct. 2, 1963
Despite beginning his remarkable six-year stretch of excellence two years earlier, Koufax hadn’t converted every skeptic. Many observers believed that the Yankees, whose 104-57 regular-season record was their best since 1954, would tame Koufax's Dodgers to win a third consecutive World Series.
Not so. Koufax struck out the first five batters he faced in the Series opener, and 10 of the first 13, fanning the formidable Mickey Mantle twice in that span. Koufax accumulated 15 strikeouts in a complete-game effort before a Yankee Stadium throng of 69,000, breaking Carl Erskine’s Series record of 14, which he set with the Dodgers in 1953. Los Angeles prevailed, 5-2, en route to sweeping New York in four games.
3. Surpassing even himself
Sept. 9, 1965
This was the last of Koufax’s four no-hitters, and the finest. He dazzled against the Cubs while weaving 14 strikeouts into a perfect game, the sixth in baseball’s Modern Era (since 1900). Koufax also broke Bob Feller’s record of three no-hitters. Koufax threw 79 strikes in 113 pitches -- each thrown under duress, because the Dodgers mustered only a single run against Cubs left-hander Bob Hendley.
Koufax looked strong enough to work nine more innings as he struck out Chicago’s last six batters. Pinch-hitter Joe Amalfitano, who struck out on three pitches for the second out in the ninth, recalled a brief exchange he had with Harvey Kuenn, another pinch-hitter, who flailed at a 2-2 fastball for the game’s final out. “Wait for me,” Kuenn told Amalfitano as they crossed paths. “I’ll be right back.”
4. With religious fervor
Oct. 6, 1965
Koufax made an impact without stepping on the mound in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series at Minnesota. He refused to pitch in observance of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Though Koufax rarely attended temple, he genuinely believed that he represented an example to Jewish youths and wanted them to maintain pride in their faith.
Koufax absorbed the decision in the Dodgers' 5-1 loss to the Twins in Game 3 of the Series, but he led Los Angeles' comeback from an 0-2 deficit by pitching shutouts in Games 5 and 7.
5. Can’t touch this
Oct. 6, 1963
Though he didn’t amass another prolific strikeout total as he did in Game 1, Koufax remained in control against the Yankees in Game 4 of the World Series. He surrendered six hits, didn’t walk a batter and struck out eight as Los Angeles concluded its sweep with a 2-1 triumph.
Koufax faltered only in the seventh inning, when Mantle homered. Only two Yankees advanced as far as second base, one resulting from second baseman Dick Tracewski’s ninth-inning error. Koufax overcame the miscue to induce Hector Lopez’s game- and Series-ending grounder with two on and two out. The left-hander reacted with unrestrained glee as he bounded from the mound.
6. Working overtime
Oct. 2, 1966
The Dodgers entered the regular season’s final day with a 1 1/2-game lead over the second-place Giants and a doubleheader to play at Philadelphia. If the Giants won their game at Pittsburgh and the Dodgers lost both ends of the twinbill, San Francisco would have to play a rained-out game from earlier in the season with a chance to force a tie atop the standings and a tiebreaker game vs. the Dodgers.
The Giants won, prompting the Dodgers to maximize their chances of winning: using Koufax, though he would have to pitch on two days’ rest. Appearing in his final regular-season game -- which nobody knew except for reporter Phil Collier of the San Diego Union -- Koufax struck out 10 in a complete-game effort and paced the Dodgers in a 6-3 triumph.
7. A glimpse of greatness
Aug. 31, 1959
Koufax was so gifted that his considerable talent occasionally manifested itself, even while he posted a 36-40 record with a 4.10 ERA and averaged 5.3 walks per nine innings from 1955-60. This was one of those games.
Koufax struck out 18 Giants, tying another of Feller’s records, in a 5-2 victory. Koufax struck out future Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey twice apiece, though McCovey hit a fifth-inning homer after Mays and Cepeda doubled in the first to open the scoring. Koufax again reached the 18-strikeout plateau on April 24, 1962, in a 10-2 win at Chicago. By then, he was well on his way to becoming Sandy Koufax.
8. Maintaining momentum
Oct. 11, 1965
The Dodgers won three consecutive games to erase the Twins' 2-0 lead in the World Series, a streak that culminated in Koufax’s 7-0 victory in Game 5.
Not known for offensive outbursts, the Dodgers smacked 14 hits to give Koufax a comfortable lead, which almost seemed like an unfair advantage for Koufax. He complemented his teammates with a characteristically dominant performance, yielding four hits and striking out 10.
9. Hop on my back, I’ll carry you
Sept. 25-Oct. 2, 1965
As the Dodgers strived to outdo the Giants in another late-season sprint toward the NL pennant, Koufax provided the finishing kick. Helping erase the Giants’ one-game lead, he completed all three starts he made in the season’s final nine games, including shutouts against St. Louis and Cincinnati.
Koufax clinched the pennant for the Dodgers with his final triumph in this stretch, surrendering four hits and striking out 13 in a 3-1 win over Milwaukee on Oct. 2, the penultimate day of the season. He allowed 11 hits and struck out 38 in 27 innings during this span.
10. This is how habits begin
June 30, 1962
Koufax pitched one no-hitter per season from 1962-65. This was his first, a 5-0 silencing of the Mets at Dodger Stadium. Koufax regressed somewhat to his days as a wild fireballer by walking five batters. But his 13 strikeouts offset those free passes.
Koufax struck out the side in the first inning and retired seven of the first nine batters he faced on strikeouts. The victory improved Koufax’s record to 11-4 and lowered his ERA to 2.33. He finished the season with a 2.54 ERA, which earned him his first of five consecutive NL ERA titles.