So, a new season begins with the same old (well, semi-old) Hideo Nomo.
Impassive, impressive, impenetrable.
Dominating the Arizona Diamondbacks and outpitching Randy Johnson.
Setting a tone and delivering a midseason statement for a healthier Dodger rotation on whose arms so much of the next 161 games rests.
Doing it, this four-hit, 103-pitch, 8-0 shutout with the familiar repertoire of a fastball here, curveball there and no emotion anywhere.
Doing it, however, with an efficiency that pitching coach Jim Colborn said “was even better” than anything he saw last year when the ultimate game face returned to Los Angeles and won 16 games, including 14 of his last 15 decisions, a safety net for Manager Jim Tracy amid the injuries and a performance that was rewarded with this rewarding, in turn, opening-day start.
Now, the Dodgers have Odalis Perez going against Curt Schilling tonight and Kevin Brown going against Elmer Dessens in his comeback start Wednesday night, a rotation that wasn’t set up on a whim.
As a Dodger official said: “It won’t play out this way in every series, but you have to feel good with Kevin pitching against their No. 3. Arizona is the team we have to beat.”
The Dodgers beat the Diamondbacks in every way.
A 13-hit attack sent a medicinal message to hospitalized batting coach Jack Clark and picked up on Tracy’s spring theme of “adding on, delivering the knockout.”
A flawless defense helped extricate Nomo from two potential threats when his lead was only 1-0.
Tony Womack led off the fourth inning with a double but was cut down trying to stretch it into a triple on a pinpoint relay from Cesar Izturis.
Luis Gonzalez opened the fifth with a single and was thrown out by Paul Lo Duca trying to steal second.
The events of opening day are magnified, often taking on more importance than they really deserve, but this was a March effort with September overtones against a pitcher who had been 5-0 in opening-day starts and has permanent possession of the Cy Young Award.
“It doesn’t get any easier [against Schilling], but this definitely sets a tone and makes a statement,” Lo Duca said. “We ran the bases aggressively, moved guys over and made big plays on defense. If we play the game right, we’re going to win. If we play the game right, this pitching staff is going to be even better than it is. There’s a reason it’s the focal point.”
It would be hard for Nomo to be much better. He faced only 30 batters, threw 19 first-pitch strikes, went to ball three only four times while walking one and striking out seven in pitching his first complete game and shutout since May, 25, 2001.
“I would like to continue this type rhythm,” Nomo said through an interpreter. “I don’t know if I can every time, but I want to try.
“It’s very important for me to throw strikes, but I wasn’t really thinking about the complete game or shutout. I just wanted to win.”
The Dodgers have preached first-pitch strike to Nomo, or as Lo Duca said: “He has so many weapons, and his split finger is so good, that the hitter almost doesn’t have a chance when he throws first-pitch strikes. You saw it today.”
What the Diamondbacks and a crowd of 47,356 saw was the stoic persona that is Nomo’s trademark. The Dodgers insist that he has a terrific personality and sense of humor, but that’s news to the newsmen who follow the team. Eight years after making his Dodger debut, he still uses an interpreter with the media and is seldom caught with a smile -- unless he has thrown a no-hitter, which he has done twice.
Nevertheless, in his return to the Dodgers, he is 17-6 and has given the hitters no reason to smile either.
“Nothing affects him, nothing rattles him,” Lo Duca said. “He’s the same guy out there whether he’s getting hit or getting outs, and he’s so polished it’s unbelievable.
“He knows what guys did off him three and four years ago, and he knows what he wants to do on every pitch.”
That was unfortunate for Arizona’s rookie first baseman Lyle Overbay, who is being counted on to replace Mark Grace. Overbay appeared to have no chance against Nomo as he grounded out, flied out and struck out. Then again, his older and wiser teammates were overmatched as well.
“The impressive thing about Nomo,” Dodger General Manager Dan Evans said, “is that there is absolutely no give in him. He goes about it the same way on every pitch.”
With Guillermo Mota beginning a four-day suspension, Nomo’s complete game made it possible for Tracy to avoid using any relievers while counterpart Bob Brenly was going to the bullpen four times -- an unusual development in a game started by Johnson, who has only a 6-4 career record against the Dodgers.
In this one, every Dodger position player except Fred McGriff delivered at least one hit, but Nomo was the biggest hit of all, a tone-setter, although that interpretation was disputed by pitching coach Colborn, who said:
“The tone was set in spring training. This was just an extension of the focus that was established then.”
A four-hit, 8-0 extension. A laugher, in the lexicon of the game, but not enough, of course, to make Hideo Nomo laugh.