SAN FRANCISCO -- There are many factors that go into filling out a postseason award ballot.
Occasionally, the name at the top is fairly clear-cut, requiring little deliberation on the part of the voter. More often, though, there is room for debate, and each member of the Baseball Writers Association of America who is asked to submit a ballot for that particular award has to decide which of those factors to weigh most heavily and which to discard.
We won't know for almost two months whether Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw will capture the National League Cy Young Award, and we won't know for almost three weeks whether he is even deserving of it. What we know right now, though, is that unless he suffers a complete collapse in what probably are his three remaining starts this season, he will be among the leading contenders, and there is one somewhat-intangible factor that the voters probably shouldn't discount.
That would be the way Kershaw has pitched against Tim Lincecum -- up to and including the Dodgers' 2-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants and a vintage Lincecum before a sellout crowd of 41,902 on Friday night at AT&T Park.
Kershaw, whom the Dodgers took as a high school senior three spots before the Giants took Lincecum as a college junior in the first round of the 2006 draft, was pitted against the two-time Cy Young winner for the third -- but probably not the last -- time this season in the opener of this late-season series. In those three matchups, Kershaw now has three victories while allowing exactly zero earned runs over 23 innings.
The captain hasn't turned off the seatbelt sign yet, though: barring any rotation juggling by either team, Kershaw and Lincecum will square off for a fourth and final time on Sept. 20 at Dodger Stadium. And then, we can assume, countless more times in the years to come.
"I just try to match him," Kershaw said of his performances against Lincecum. "He is an awesome pitcher. You know it's going to be a low-scoring game. [But] it doesn't really matter to me who I'm facing. I just have to put up zeroes, no matter who it is."
In those three starts against Kershaw this year, Lincecum has given up all of two earned runs in 22 innings, plus an unearned one that wound up costing him the game back on opening day in Los Angeles. He has been almost as good as Kershaw in every one of them. But you know what they say about almost.
Pitchers will tell you, almost universally, that they pitch to the other team's lineup, sometimes not even aware of who the opposing starter is. Often, this is true. Really, as Kershaw prepares himself for a particular start by going over scouting reports and watching video, why would he need to clutter his mind any further with information that doesn't really pertain to him?
But when that other pitcher is Lincecum -- a pitcher against whom Kershaw probably always will be measured, simply because they came from the same draft, pitch in the same division and are the respective aces on either side of one of the game's fiercest and most historic rivalries -- that is a different scenario entirely.
"I'm sure they both know it," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "They like to say they don't, but I'm sure they both know it. They probably both know they can't give up much."
And they never do. But because Kershaw always seems to give up a hair less than Lincecum does, the third-place Dodgers (71-72) now stand a realistic shot of overtaking the World Series-champion Giants for second in the National League West. Just a game south of .500 for the first time since May 13, the Dodgers trail the division-leading Arizona Diamondbacks by 12 and the Giants by 3½, with five head-to-head matchups remaining.
The big picture aside, though, this game was about the small picture, and what is becoming a rivalry-within-a-rivalry between Kershaw (18-5) and Lincecum.
It also was about Kershaw's slow march toward what probably will be an NL Cy Young if he can keep performing the way he has since the All-Star break, when his ERA is now a sterling 1.30. He needs to win two of his final three starts to reach 20 victories. He has a shot to lead the league in innings pitched. He now has 231 strikeouts, 25 more than any other NL pitcher. And based on casual conversations with other writers around the league, it would seem that his support is growing.
Lincecum was spared the loss this time.
He had nursed a 1-0 lead since the first inning, an unearned run that resulted from Dee Gordon's throwing error, the first run of any kind the Giants had gotten off Kershaw this year. But that disappeared in the eighth, after Matt Kemp's two-out nubber hugged the foul line just long enough to start a mini-rally that led to a manufactured run. It was Santiago Casilla (2-2) who would give up the decisive run in the ninth on a perfect slide by Eugenio Velez to get in under an almost-perfect throw from Giants second baseman Jeff Keppinger on Jamey Carroll's grounder to a drawn-in infield.
Javy Guerra's 17th save, a one-two-three job against the middle of what had to be a demoralized Giants lineup, was all the Dodgers needed from there.
And with 18 games remaining, all Kershaw needs from here is to keep doing what he is doing. Only time will tell how many Cy Young Awards are in the distant future for this 23-year-old phenom whose best days still figure to be well ahead of him. But all he can do this year is win one, and that is beginning to look like a very real possibility, if not a probability.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.