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MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Kershaw residing in exclusive company

Only Ryan, Koufax have lower hits-per-nine-innings average

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When the Cardinals' Peter Bourjos launched his game-tying two-run homer Sunday night in St. Louis in front of a national television audience, it came against a pitcher who is not just great for his time, but for all time: Mr. Clayton Kershaw.

The Dodgers' ace has yielded an average of just 6.7956 hits per nine innings in his career. Among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings in the history of the Major Leagues, only two have been harder to hit: Nolan Ryan, at 6.5553 per nine, and Sandy Koufax, at 6.7916.

As clubs go, this is about as exclusive as it gets.

Mariners right-hander Chris Young -- who preceded Kershaw at Highland Park High School in the Dallas suburb of University Park and met Kershaw on campus while Kershaw was in his teens -- has watched his fellow Texan evolve with wide eyes and admiration.

"Clayton is a great pitcher and a great person," Young said. "What he's doing is unbelievable. His no-hitter this season [on June 18 at Dodger Stadium against the Rockies] was arguably the most dominant game anyone's ever pitched. I hope he stays healthy and plays out his career. There are no limits to what he can do."

Young, 35, in the midst of a remarkable comeback for the Mariners, is second to Kershaw among active pitchers in fewest hits allowed per nine innings at 7.4911. He led the National League in 2006 (6.7) and '07 (6.1) for the Padres.

Young's career has been interrupted by injuries and surgeries -- not to mention a line drive off the bat of Albert Pujols on May 21, 2008, that resulted in multiple facial fractures.

"I was lucky it got me where it did," Young said. "Potentially, it can be deadly ... fatal. It's one of the risks you take when you play the game."

Young pitched a total of 22 games the three seasons following the incident, but he's back doing what he loves, baffling hitters with his deception, movement, command and the intelligence of a Princeton grad.

Following Kershaw and Young on the active Top 10 list are Matt Cain (7.5425), Tim Lincecum (7.7034), Gio Gonzalez (7.7965), David Price (7.8305), Jered Weaver (7.8904), Jake Peavy (7.9761), Cole Hamels (8.0164) and C.J. Wilson (8.0412).

Justin Verlander (8.08), Ubaldo Jimenez and Felix Hernandez (8.09), Johnny Cueto (8.11), Max Scherzer (8.17) and Adam Wainwright (8.18) are pushing to move up the ladder.

The all-time Top 10:

1. Nolan Ryan (6.5553)
The all-time leader in no-hitters, one-hitters and two-hitters, Ryan was the Babe Ruth of power pitchers. The Express led his league in this category an incredible 12 times, from ages 25 to 44. In 1972 for the Angels and '91 for the Rangers, he held hitters to 5.3 hits per nine innings. He's on the Mount Rushmore of pitchers.

2. Sandy Koufax (6.7916)
Arguably the greatest pitcher ever for the final five years of a career that ended after the 1966 season when he was 30, Koufax led the National League with the fewest hits per nine innings for five consecutive seasons with a best of 5.8 in '65. The Dodgers' legendary southpaw dominated with a heater in the upper 90s and an unhittable 12-to-6 curveball.

3. Clayton Kershaw
At 26, the Dodgers' heir to the original Special K has already led the NL three times in this department, along with leading the Majors in ERA the past three seasons and claiming Cy Young Awards in 2011 and '13. Kershaw is holding hitters to 6.4 hits per nine innings this season.

4. Sid Fernandez (6.8513)
Surprised? Not if you were a diehard Mets fan during their glory days in the 1980s. El Sid made hitters miserable with his deceptive delivery, rising heat and big breaker. The easygoing native of Honolulu led the NL three times in fewest hits per nine innings with a best of 5.7 in '85.

5. James Rodney Richard (6.8761)
In his prime, there was something called "J.R. disease" in the NL. Hitters just happened to be afflicted the day Richard was on the mound for the Astros in their colorful uniforms. At 6-foot-8, Richard threw 98-100 mph with a slider that came in at 90-92. Before his career ended in 1980 at age 30 with a blood clot in his neck that required surgery, Richard led the NL three times in this category. He was peaking in '80 when he went down, holding hitters to 5.1 hits per nine innings.

6. Andy Messersmith (6.9366)
An intensely competitive right-hander who had his best seasons with the Angels and Dodgers, Messersmith led the AL in 1969 (6.1) and '70 (6.7) and the NL in '75 (6.8). His changeup was his signature pitch, but he had a lively fastball and quality breaking stuff to go with it.

7. Trevor Hoffman (6.9896)
Speaking of changeups, here was the master. The Padres' magnificent closer, the all-time leader in saves with 601 before gracefully stepping aside for Mariano Rivera, Hoffman twice held batters to 5.1 hits per nine innings in a season. In 2009, pitching for the Brewers, he came in at 5.8 hits per nine. His career mark is the best among all qualifying relievers in history.

8. Mariano Rivera (6.9971)
Among the most popular players in Yankees history, the Sandman rates fractionally behind Hoffman in this category in the course of his record 652 saves. Rivera effortlessly shredded bats and egos with his killer cutter. In the postseason, where he ruled supreme, his 5.5 hits per nine reflect his unprecedented dominance.

9. Hoyt Wilhelm (7.0145)
The master of the knuckleball, Wilhelm was a reliever for 20 of his 21 seasons -- leading the AL in ERA (2.19) in 1959 for the Orioles in his only season as a full-time starter. With his career hit- per-nine-innings mark, Wilhelm cleared the path for future knucklers. He exceeded 130 innings in a season three times -- strictly as a reliever.

10. Sam McDowell (7.0344)
"Sudden Sam" led the AL twice in the category with a best of 5.9 in 1965, the year he also led in ERA (2.18) and strikeouts (325) for Cleveland. McDowell, however, drew not a single vote for the Cy Young Award. There was only one presented in those days, and Koufax claimed all 20 votes.

Just missing the top 10 were Kerry Wood (7.063) and Pedro Martinez (7.0699). Other prominent names in the Top 50: Babe Ruth (7.1774), Randy Johnson (7.2821), Rich Gossage (7.4464), Tom Seaver (7.4721), Walter Johnson (7.4762), Bruce Sutter (7.5921), Bob Gibson (7.5974), Jim Palmer (7.6345), Roger Clemens (7.6607) and Johan Santana (7.6686).

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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