The gates at Dodger Stadium opened at 10 a.m. this morning, but the party was rocking in nearby Elysian Park even earlier than that. After a bizarre drive to the Stadium this morning in which I covered 22 miles of I-10 and U.S. 101 in about 22 minutes during what would normally be peak commute traffic, I found everyone at Elysian Park around 9 a.m. with their bar-b-que grills going and the music pumping. It was so crowded that there wasn’t even anywhere to park!
I took a little drive around since I got down to the Ballpark so early and opted to take a drive up to the Griffith Park Observatory. The view of Downtown Los Angeles from up there was rather unique this morning. The sky was overcast, but the temperature was just about perfect. While not the sort of bright sunny day that one would normally expect in Los Angeles on Opening Day, there was a hint in the air that something spectacular was about to happen.
I arrived at the ballpark at about 10 a.m. as they began to let people into the parking lot gates, and met up with my friend Liz behind the Left Field Pavilion around 10:25. We walked from the LFP to the Reserve Level where we were greeted by some spectacular sights. The first, most obvious ones were the giant Bobbleheads that adorn the Reserve Level’s outer concourse both inside and outside of the Reserve Level gate. These were rather impressive, and yes, the heads actually Bobble. Very impressive.
Once inside, the ballpark was very festive. Some great new features for Opening Day included bands stationed outside of different entrances. The Left Field side of the Reserve Level featured a band that had a sort of New Orleans/Mardi Gras feel to it, an old-style jazz brass band. The Top Deck featured a rock band blasting out hit from 1960 to about present. “I Want You To Want Me,” “My Sharona” and “Jumping Jack Flash” were amongst the selections I heard while up there. Whether the Dodgers continue this for all games or select games, or whether this was just a part of Opening Day Festivities remains to be seen. As for the pre-game, there was a performance by the Blue Man Group. Then of course the teams were introduced, the San Francisco Giants to continuous boos and the Dodgers to the enthusiastic cheers of a crowd that’s been waiting 25 years to bring a title home.
There was a sense of anticipation within the Stadium. Sure, this was Game 1 out of 162. We know the season is long and that there will be ups and downs. But there was something about kicking the Giants’ butts that just seemed downright necessary. Even the Giants fans seemed to sense this. Despite beginning a title defense against an in-state rival with a lot of bad blood, the presence of Giants fans at the ballpark was very muted. I could count the number of total Giants fans I saw on the day on two hands, little specs of orange lost in a sea of Blue and White. Whether this is because of what happened to Bryan Stow on Opening Day two years ago or because, as many Dodger fans have suggested, Giants fans are “bandwagoners” and don’t share the extensive loyalty to team that Dodger fans do that often includes travel to other ballparks or some combination of circumstance, this was a very vocal Dodgers crowd with little to no interruption by Giants fans. And given that most of the Giants fans I did see avoided confrontation at all costs, I think they sensed that Dodger Stadium on Opening Day was neither the time nor the place to boast about their team’s World title.
The pregame featured the usual dramatic rendition of the National Anthem, complete with outfield-encompassing flag, and ended with a stirring First Pitch. After a video in which a baseball was passed from person to person across many of L.A.’s teams and Super Stars and A-list celebrities, it was shown being retrieved by team part-owner and Laker Legend Magic Johnson, who then walked out of the Dugout. Several members of past World Series Championship teams, including Maury Wills, Tommy Davis, Tommy Lasorda and Orel Hersheiser were introduced, and Magic walked to the mound to throw out the Opening Pitch to Hersheiser (I erroneously believed at the time it was Hershiser making the pitch. It was, in fact, Magic.) However, just before Magic could make the pitch, Don Mattingly came out of the dugout and walked to the mound, casting momentary confusion across the Stadium, including a look of confusion on Magic’s face. However, this bit of acting and trickery was just a setup for what may have been one of the most sentimental, chilling moments in the history of the old ballpark. Mattingly took the ball from Magic and motioned “for the left-handed,” and out to the mound strode a Dodger legend so noted for his preference for privacy that he did not even attend his own Bobblehead game last year. The confusion turned into a cheer that won’t soon be forgot by those in attendance as an old ace wearing number 32 strode to the mound. Sanford “Sandy” Koufax was perhaps the most dominant pitcher the game had seen in a 5 year stretch from 1962 to 1966, a period in which the Dodgers won 2 World Series titles and came up short in a third appearance, he of a once-record-setting 382 strike out season and 4 no-hitters and one perfect game. Yet while Koufax has done a wonderful job over the years of helping to advise and teach young pitchers the craft of pitching, it is very rare that he graces the ballpark with a visible presence.
But on this date, 50 seasons after the 1963 championship, 25 years after the 1988 championship, Koufax threw out the Opening Pitch to Orel Hershiser, a Dodger great in his own right with his own impressive career and a magical 1988 season that was one of the greatest in franchise history, including a 59 inning shutout streak in the heat of the pennant race. Koufax’s pitch off the mound came out of his fabled left hand and reached Hershiser on a bounce, and the crowd ate it up. For anyone who missed this amazing moment, you can read about it and see the video at this link on dodgers.com: http://losangeles.dodgers.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20130401&content_id=43669704&vkey=news_la&c_id=la
The game itself was a great affair and promised to be a pitchers’ duel from the outset. Clayton Kershaw took the mound and fired a fastball at 93 miles per hour to Angel Pagan at around 1:10 p.m. and the 2013 season was underway. Kershaw had little trouble in the first, allowing only a single to Pablo Sandoval with 2 outs before striking out Giants’ All Star catcher and 2012 National League MVP Buster Posey looking on a 3-2 breaking ball that hummed in at 84 miles an hour and caught the outside corner.
The Dodgers threatened in the Bottom of the 1st, with a leadoff single by new addition Carl Crawford that deflected off of Brandon Belt and pitched high in the air to the second baseman who’s throw back to first was late. The Dodgers got Matt Cain to throw well over 30 pitches in the first inning, but were unable to capitalize, partly due to Crawford being thrown out attempting to steal third base with one out and Cain struggling to get anyone out. Even Cain’s first recorded out was difficult as he needed about 10 pitches to strike out Matt Kemp. Cain would later catch Andre Ethier looking to end the inning.
The game continued with some great pitching and great defensive plays. Cain settled in and neither the Dodgers nor the Giants could put together much offense against the either team’s ace. Cain would end his afternoon after 6 innings and 92 pitches, looking mostly masterful in his 5 innings after the rocky first inning, striking out 8, walking only one, and giving up 4 hits. Meanwhile Kershaw was dealing on his own end and getting a lot of support from Luis Cruz. One of Cruz’s biggest defensive plays of the day would come in the Top of the 7th. After another hit by Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey came up with one out and a chance to do some damage. Posey smashed a ball down the third base line and Cruz came up with it on the fly, then turned and fired to first, just missing a chance to double Sandoval off. Kershaw would retire the side on the next batter and pitch a 1-2-3 Eighth Inning.
At this point, I figured Kershaw’s afternoon was done. Despite having only thrown 85 pitches, the Dodgers were locked in a 0-0 tie and Kershaw was due to lead off the Bottom of the 8th. Also, this early in the season, a lot of managers will opt to take their starters out and put the game in the hands of their bullpen to decrease the risk of injury, and while some people might have questioned Mattingly if he did this, others would argue that what the Dodgers needed at this point was offense and pointed at their strong bullpen as a reason why to go ahead and pull Kershaw.
Instead, Mattingly rewarded Kershaw’s efforts and allowed him to stay in the game. Kershaw promptly returned the favor, hitting a first-pitch fastball from George Kontos just to the left of the tarp in the Right Field Pavilion over 400 feet away to draw first blood and bringing the Dodger Stadium crowd into a frenzy that still hadn’t ended when Carl Crawford hit a double down the left field line 3 pitches later. This was Clayton Kershaw’s first career home run at the Major League level, and it could not have come at a better time.
The excitement of the inning wasn’t over yet, though. Following Kershaw’s blast and Crawford’s double, the Giants changed pitchers. Second Baseman Mark Ellis popped a bunt with a lot of back spin up in front of the plate. Buster Posey, a victim of some bad luck throughout the game, decided to make a play on the popup rather than let the ball bounce and either make a play on one of the runners or let the ball possibly roll foul. Posey dove for the ball only to have it hit his glove and then fall to the ground in fair territory, allowing the speedy Crawford to advance to third base and Ellis to safely reach first. Matt Kemp followed with a walk and Carl Crawford came across on a passed ball to increase the Dodgers’ lead to 2-0. Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt would plunk Adrian Gonzalez with what looked like a clear “purpose pitch” to load the bases, and RBI groundouts by Andre Ethier and A.J. Ellis would extend the Dodgers’ lead to 4-0.
Kershaw came out to a standing ovation in the 9th, the fans now adequately satisfied that the Giants’ butts had been kicked and the Dodgers had put their rivals on notice that this year will be different. With a 4-0 lead and the crowd behind him, at 3:40 p.m., Clayton Kershaw threw a slow curveball on a 1-2 count to Pablo Sandoval, the only Giants hitter to have any sustained success against Kershaw throughout the game. Sandoval reached out and weakly pulled the ball down the third base line. As he had done all afternoon, Luis Cruz came in on the ball and made a strong throw to first and the Dodgers had won the first game of their 2013 season.
Now, for some post-game recognition and thoughts.
PLAYER OF THE GAME: Without a doubt, this game was all about Clayton Kershaw. His complete game shutout is reason enough, but his go-ahead (and eventually game-winning) home run in the Bottom of the 8th absolutely ices it. Clayton Kershaw did it all today. Pitch. Hit. Field. An assist on this can go to Luis Cruz, who played superb defense at third base. Today, Clayton Kershaw channeled the left-handed dominance of Sandy Koufax to shut down the Giants on the mound. Ironically, he also channeled the ghost of Don Drysdale, who not only was a great pitcher in his own right alongside Koufax, but also a pretty good power hitter, twice hitting 7 home runs in a season(1958 and 1965,) tallying 29 total blasts in his career, and even being used as a pinch hitter in some situations. Today, Kershaw was his own pinch hitter and is now only 28 back of Drysdale for the team’s all-time home run lead amongst pitchers.
BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME: Buster Posey had a terrible day, though clearly some of it was bad luck. Posey struck out to end the first inning on a Kershaw breaking ball that absolutely froze him, then his sharp line-out in the 7th with Sandoval aboard was absolute highway robbery. Against some third basemen, that ball is down the line and the Giants either score a run or (more likely because Sandoval runs slightly faster than a snail) at least have two runners in scoring position and one out and a chance to draw first blood. Then in the 8th, if Posey manages to make the catch on Ellis’s popup, Giants fans would be talking about what a great play it was and how it gave them a look at the game in the 9th. Instead, the drop made for the third consecutive Dodger hitter to reach base and put Carl Crawford in a position to score on a wild pitch. Further proof that baseball is a game of inches. A couple inches the other way in both cases, and perhaps Posey is the hero instead of the goat.
Matty Ice: Matt Kemp doesn’t quite look right. I’m not overly concerned, but he’s just not quite catching up to the fastball. A comfortable Matt Kemp takes at least one of those Cain pitches in the first inning that he was fouling off and slaps it into the outfield for a base hit. He’s a little cold. This early in the season and coming off shoulder surgery, it’s not necessarily a reason to be concerned, but it’s clear that from an offensive standpoint, Matt Kemp hasn’t quite thawed out yet.
The Carl Crawford We Knew Is The Carl Crawford We Know: Carl Crawford developed a reputation as a great leadoff man in Tampa Bay, only to see his reputation get thrashed in Boston before succumbing to an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. There was a lot of skepticism in bringing Crawford over in the trade that also netted the team Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto, and even more second-guessing when Cuban Phenom Yasiel Puig hit over .500 in Spring Training. But at least for the sake of Opening Day, Carl Crawford looked like Carl Crawford, getting on base, showing off his speed, scampering home on a wild pitch, and playing solid outfield defense, including catching up to a long fly ball on the warning track that may have been Kershaw’s only real bad pitch “mistake” of the game. There is no doubt that Yasiel Puig is the future and that chances are good either Crawford or Andre Ethier will find themselves on a new team some time in the next two seasons, but for now, Crawford looks like he belongs.
The Legend of A.J. Ellis Continues: An intriguing plot line in the Dodgers’ story from last season, A.J. Ellis returns for his second season as the Dodgers’ primary starting catcher. While Ellis didn’t do anything spectacular today, he called a great game as usual (and a shutout at that) and extended the Dodgers’ lead to 4-0 with his RBI Groundout in the 8th.
Final Thoughts: This was truly an Opening Day to remember. Koufax’s first pitch and Kershaw’s utter dominance of the game on the mound and at the plate set an incredibly positive tone to start the 2013 season. There are 161 games left to play, and of course one game at the beginning of April doesn’t determine which teams will be playing well into October. That said, Dodger fans have every reason to feel good about this team, and all indications are that this could be a special year at Dodger Stadium.