By Jon Weisman
LOS ANGELES -- It's damned tough to upstage Sandy Koufax. To see it happen was unforgettable.
The Hall of Famer and Los Angeles Dodger immortal returned to Dodger Stadium on Monday's Opening Day, 50 years after the team's 1963 World Series title season, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, receiving ferocious cheers from a grateful populace that were unlikely to be matched at any point once the game between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Giants began.
But in a rocket-shot metaphor of what his career has so quickly become, 25-year-old Clayton Kershaw stole the biggest roars of the day. Eight innings into a scoreless season debut on the mound, Kershaw batted for himself and broke a 0-0 tie with a first-pitch blast over the center-field wall, opening the floodgates for a 4-0 Dodger victory and burnishing a fast-growing legend.
In the grand scheme of things -- and grand could well be the operative word describing this year's pennant race between the Dodgers and the Giants -- it only amounts to one win for one team and one loss for the other. But turning little moments into big ones is what will shape the two teams' destiny in 2013.
Kershaw's performance -- he finished with a seven-strikeout four-hitter, walking none -- fits the big dreams of the 2013 Dodgers. In his 150th career start, Kershaw lowered his career ERA to 2.77 and raised his strikeout total to within 19 of 1,000. At the same age, Koufax had a 4.10 ERA and was still wrestling with his infamous early control issues.
The point is not to suggest that Kershaw's peak will match Koufax's. The point is to express wonder that we're even having this conversation, punctuated by the fact that thanks to saner treatment of his arm than Koufax received in the 1960s, Kershaw might extend his life on the mound long past the age when Koufax was forced into premature retirement.
No. 22, as you'd expect, dismissed comparisons between himself and No. 32. On Koufax's behalf, Kershaw seemed offended by them.
"I just don't want to disrespect Sandy," Kershaw said after the game. "He doesn't deserve that. He's the best left-hander ever to play the game. For somebody (to make the comparison) is disrespectful to him. Obviously, I'm honored, but I've got a long way to go."
Among the uncouth souls linking the two together, however, you can count Dodger manager Don Mattingly and his predecessor, Joe Torre.
"I know Joe made comparisons early on between Clayton and Sandy," Mattingly said. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't flash through my mind in the sixth inning, as he's rolling."
"He didn't even get in trouble (today)," Mattingly added, somewhat awestruck.
The Koufax-Kershaw connection also wasn't lost on Dodger catcher A.J. Ellis.
"It made the day complete, (Koufax) throwing the first pitch and Clayton the last pitch," Ellis said. "Like a passing of the torch.
"He loves the big stage. He's a special, unique player who rises to the occasion."
It's the kind of ascendance the Dodgers will need day in, day out in 2013 if they are going to fend off other competitors and dethrone the Giants. The Dodgers' offseason has been all about the macro -- big spending, big stadium renovations, big hopes. But with the arrival of Opening Day, as has always been the case in baseball, it all becomes about the micro, with fan happiness rising and falling with every pitch.
No further evidence of that was needed beyond the opponent that occupied the opposite dugout. San Francisco has not only won two of the past three World Series, the Giants have done so with remarkably little advanced fanfare. The Dodgers' century-old rivals aren't typically the subject of much national navel-gazing. Since 2010, they have simply executed, more often than any other team, whenever they have needed to.
The idea that San Francisco's success has been a triumph of team chemistry over payroll is at least something of a red herring. The Giants had the highest Opening Day player budget in the NL West in 2012, then won the World Series with a starting lineup that was 50 percent new guys: Gregor Blanco, Angel Pagan, Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro. The Giants weren't grown organically in cage-free farms -- they thrived on talent, key front-office moves and key plays.
Nevertheless, the easiest thing in the baseball world right now is to point out that the Dodgers' record-setting payroll, let alone an Opening Day win (the fifth in the past six years for Los Angeles) buys the Dodgers no guarantee of a title. Everyone knows this, most certainly Dodger fans 25 years removed from their last World Series, whether their memories only go back to last summer's moving-mountains acquisitions or extend to when the signings of Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry supposedly heralded a great new era.
Though it was forgotten to history before the game was over, the first inning of today's game put the importance of the little things all on display.
In the top of the first, after Pablo Sandoval lined a two-out single up the middle and with a 2-2 count on reigning NL MVP Buster Posey, Kershaw threw a wild pitch to move Sandoval into scoring position. Immediately you realized, in this kind of pitcher's duel, that such a mistake could make the difference in the ballgame. And that one game, in this kind of pennant race, could make the difference in the season.
On the next pitch, with the count 3-2, Kershaw dropped in a knee-dipper curveball, the kind that made him famous, that froze Posey.
San Francisco starter Matt Cain's bottom of the first offered even more kernels to chew on. Carl Crawford's hard shot off first baseman Brandon Belt translated to an infield single for the left fielder in his first official Los Angeles at-bat. Mark Ellis was hit by a pitch in a situation that might have tempted the bunt-friendly Mattingly to sacrifice. Matt Kemp struck out, but not after coming back from 0-2 in the count to extend Cain for 11 pitches.
Then came the play of the inning: With the count 2-0 on Adrian Gonzalez, Crawford took off for third base, where he was thrown out (on ball three) easily by Posey. "Carl's on his own," Mattingly later said, though he noted that Crawford could have been given a stop sign. "We'll continue to talk about situations as we go forward."
Though Gonzalez walked on the next pitch, Andre Ethier struck out on a full-count, leaving the Dodgers empty-handed in what figured to be their best look at Cain … except for the fact that they had forced Cain into 29 pitches in the inning. Thus began the domino effect, if you had the patience to see it through.
Thanks to that first inning, Cain had thrown 92 pitches through six, nearly 30 more than Kershaw at that time. So in the bottom of the seventh, the Giants were the first to go to their bullpen, turning to reliever George Kontos. And Kontos was in his second inning of work when he faced Kershaw.
Kershaw was up to bat for three reasons: He had thrown only 85 pitches across eight innings, he is the Dodgers' best-hitting pitcher (tied for the major-league lead in hits among pitchers from 2011-12) and the Dodgers have little to no offense off the bench to speak of. Mattingly said there was no question that Kershaw would bat for himself in the eighth, and Kershaw confirmed there wasn't even a conversation before he stepped into the on-deck circle to warm up.
The left-hander squared up on Kontos' first pitch of the eighth and launched the ball into an arc of triumph over the center-field wall. He became the first pitcher to hit a home run on Opening Day since Joe Magrane in 1988, the first Dodger to do it since Don Drysdale in 1965 and the first major-leaguer to homer while throwing an Opening Day shutout since Bob Lemon in 1953, according to STATS.
It also happened to be Kershaw's first home run since high school. But big whoop: High school wasn't so long ago for the 2006 grad.
"I had no idea if it was gonna go or not, because I had never hit one," Kershaw said. "I figured I'd better swing at the first pitch. I had struck out twice and didn't want to strike out again."
Kershaw exulted as he entered the dugout and even went against his nature to permit a curtain call, though he was keen to get back to thinking about closing out the shutout as quickly as possible. Said A.J. Ellis: "To see him try to refocus was actually kind of comical." The Dodgers bought Kershaw some time by rolling over San Francisco for three additional runs in the bottom of the eighth.
Kershaw took the mound in the ninth and did give up a hit to the second batter, Pagan. But Scutaro fouled out, and on Kershaw's 94th pitch -- two more than Cain offered in his six innings -- Sandoval grounded out. In 17 starts and 127 career innings against the Giants, Kershaw has a 1.28 ERA, including 0.00 in three Opening Day starts.
Reporters, though they know better, asked Kershaw if the Opening Day win had any meaning. Kershaw, since he knows better, said that it didn't.
"We're 1-0, with 161 to go," Kershaw said. "My expectations don't change for our team. We've been 1-0 before. We have lots of talent in that room, but we've had that before, too."
Everyone knows that it's all about doing the little things, day in, and day out. But there's something else that everyone knows. Doing the little things, day in and day out, is easier when you might have the next Sandy Koufax on your side.
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