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By Jon Weisman
Opening Day at Dodger Stadium usually makes for a good story. But it’s hard to remember one when there was so much story.
Game 1 of 162 wasn’t merely a contest between the two top contenders in the National League West, it was a full-throated battle for narrative.
Matt Kemp took the early lead in the bid for headlines, Clayton Kershaw threatened to sneak his way back in, and Adrian Gonzalez, Howie Kendrick and the Padres’ defense all had their moments in the sun (literally and figuratively). For good measure, you had Hanley Ramirez threatening to show up the Dodgers, hitting two home runs out in a far-off time zone.
But standing large-font triumphant at the end of the day were Jimmy Rollins, the Dodger bullpen and ultimately, the Dodgers themselves.
Los Angeles did its fans the big favor of sending them home with a 6-3 victory over San Diego — and plenty of tales to tell.
The Dodger bullpen, considered by many to be at a disadvantage compared with San Diego’s — even before the Padres acquired Craig Kimbrel on Sunday — threw three shutout innings while allowing only two baserunners. And as was the case in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the 2013 National League Division Series, Kimbrel was a mere bystander when the Dodgers hit a game-winning home run.
The only thing this game is missing is Kimbrel standing on the bullpen mound while a Dodger hits an eighth-inning homer.
— Dodger Insider (@DodgerInsider) April 6, 2015
Rollins blasted the tie-breaking three-run shot to right, on the eighth pitch of an at-bat in which he fouled off three Shawn Kelley sliders before jumping on a fastball.
Not for nothing, it’s also the first game-winning hit as a Dodger for a player who broke Dodger hearts in the 2009 National League Championship Series.
“As he’s up there, I’m kind of thinking of that double against (Jonathan Broxton),” manager Don Mattingly said. “It was good to have him on our side today.”
Meanwhile, the Dodger bullpen didn’t allow a runner past first base. Yimi Garcia, in his ninth career game and first career non-September action, struck out the first two batters he faced in a perfect seventh. Joel Peralta, a study in Yimi-contrast having just turned 39, gave up a single that was erased by an inning-ending double play.
Then came Chris Hatcher, who many assumed would be the Dodger closer (or a Dodger closer) during Kenley Jansen’s absence, but who said after the game that he never had any conversation confirming this.
Hatcher said he started stretching in the fifth inning and was ready to go every inning after that. The first he knew he would be pitching the ninth was when he got the call to warm up in the bottom of the eighth.
Throwing 95-96 miles per hour, Hatcher promptly hit Jedd Gyorko with his second pitch.
“I was (way) too excited, if you couldn’t tell,” Hatcher said, calling the atmosphere “electric.”
But Hatcher said that though “it sounds funny,” the HBP relaxed him — “it kind of reminds you you’re still playing the game.” Two pitches later, Yonder Alonso grounded into a Rollins-Kendrick-Adrian Gonzalez double play, and then Hatcher struck out pinch-hitter Alexi Amarista for his first career save.
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And with that, the Dodgers had not only neutralized their top rival in the National League West (based on predictions by most outlets following the Padres’ whirlwind offseason), but also forestalled Kemp’s return overshadowing their efforts. Kemp drove in all three Padre runs with a first-inning RBI single and a fifth-inning, two-run double, both off Kershaw.
Neither RBI opportunity for Kemp had emerged in likely fashion.
Expect the unexpected
Opening Day brings much to be excited about, and if you indulge your pessimistic side, lots to fear. Still, two of the last things Dodger fans would ever worry about are Kershaw hitting a batter on an 0-2 pitch, and Uribe failing to record an out on a modest infield grounder.
But that’s what happened in the first and fifth innings of today’s game, and that’s what paved the way for one of the things the home fans feared the most: Kemp becoming the hero in his first game against Los Angeles.
It began after Padres leadoff hitter Wil Myers took Kershaw’s third pitch of the game on his back knee. Kershaw hadn’t hit a batter on an 0-2 pitch since September 8, 2013, when he did so with future teammate Chris Heisey.
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One out later, with Kemp coming to the plate amid loud cheers, a “Thanks Matt!” message on DodgerVision and the surreal feel to the entire spectacle, Myers stole second, then scored when the longtime Dodger outfielder fisted a single to the right of second base.
It was the second career run on Opening Day off Kershaw, who had never trailed on Opening Day in four previous starts.
The play seemed like it might be a mere footnote after four Dodgers nearly hit for the cycle to start the bottom of the fourth inning. Gonzalez (3 for 5) homered to tie the game. Then came the sun-aided first sign of trouble for the maligned Padres outfield defense: Kendrick hit a deep fly that Myers couldn’t track for a triple (the first for the Dodgers on Opening Day since Gary Sheffield in 2000 and the first in a home opener since Orlando Hudson’s 2009 cycle).
Carl Crawford doubled home Kendrick to give the Dodgers a 2-1 lead, and Uribe just missed a single before Jedd Gyorko flagged his grounder to the right side.
Kershaw was on the verge of taking that 2-1 lead into the bottom of the fifth when, after a Clint Barmes leadoff double, he struck out the second and third batters of the inning and got Derek Norris in an 1-2 hole. But Norris, who led American League catchers in infield hits last season with 16, hit a slow grounder and outraced Uribe’s throw to first. That extended the inning for Kemp, who hit Kershaw’s next pitch for a two-run double to left.
The day ended for Kershaw after one more inning, in which he allowed his first two walks of the year before getting his ninth strikeout of the game. He threw 99 pitches and matched his career high, according to Eric Stephen of True Blue L.A., by allowing four doubles.
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Joc Pederson did his best to rescue Kershaw in the sixth, first with a diving catch, then with his first career double and then first career stolen base, but A.J. Ellis and pinch-hitter Justin Turner struck out. James Shields wrapped up his Padres debut with eight strikeouts against nine baserunners on 95 pitches.
But in the bottom of the seventh, Gonzalez and Kendrick struck again with two-out, back-to-back doubles to tie the game, the first of four runs off San Diego’s bullpen.
Stories upon stories
Baseball is such a weird game. Pitching for consensus National League favorite Washington, ballyhooed free agent Max Scherzer walked his first batter, then retired his next 17, then walked another batter, saw a guy reach base on an error and then, with two out in the top of the sixth, gave up his first hit of the game, a single by Lucas Duda that proved to be the game-winner. Buddy Carlyle, at age 37, got his first career save.
Every game tells a story, every story becomes part of the crazy-quilt tale that makes the sport such a lifelong, fulfilling adventure. No single game in April has ever made a difference, and everything I wrote today has every chance of becoming irrelevant tomorrow.
But even though Opening Day is just the beginning, it feels so nice to be able to leave with that happy ending, to feel inspired by the team before you. That’s what the Dodgers delivered today.