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Corey Seager’s long-awaited return to Dodgers lineup makes immediate impact

Corey Seager’s long-awaited return to Dodgers lineup makes immediate impact
The Dodgers' Corey Seager hits a solo home run off Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Greinke in the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium on Thursday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

When Thursday morning dawned, 337 days had separated Corey Seager from his last game at Dodger Stadium, a long enough period of time for the Dodgers to win another division title and lose another World Series; a long enough period of time for Seager to tear his ulnar collateral ligament, undergo hip surgery and quit eating cheese; a long enough period of time for Seager to fade into the background of the lineup’s offensive constellation.

After two surgeries, 11 months away and yet another spring spent with fingers crossed, Seager returned to his customary place on the Dodgers’ lineup — shortstop in the field, No. 2 in the batting order — in a 12-5 trouncing of the Arizona Diamondbacks on opening day. He downplayed the significance of his achievement. He abhors ceremony, and an examination of his injury plagued 2018 gave him little joy. A glance toward 2019 did.

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“Didn’t really want to go back there,” Seager said. “So just tried to enjoy the moment, and be present.”

Seager joined in a historic fusillade as the Dodgers tied a franchise record with eight home runs. His day featured a little of everything: He took a first-inning walk which contributed to a run, tested his arm without issue and launched a home run.

The hitters hounded former Dodgers ace Zack Greinke, who gave up six runs before he recorded his 10th out and departed the game without collecting a 12th. Seager expedited Greinke’s departure by walloping a belt-high, 88-mph fastball into the right-field pavilion for a solo shot, the third homer in the fourth inning alone.

The Dodger Stadium faithful jeered Greinke as he left the mound, but at least his afternoon was over. Nothing went better for Matt Koch, the reliever who replaced him. The Dodgers bashed four homers off him, too.

Joc Pederson and Enrique Hernandez each hit two homers and Austin Barnes, Cody Bellinger and Max Muncy each hit one. With Seager back in the lineup, the offense figures to ruin plenty of pitchers’ outings this summer.

“A year ago today,” manager Dave Roberts said, “he was our best player.”

Seager earned that title after a dynamic start to his career. He won the National League rookie of the year award and finished third in MVP voting in 2016. He made the All-Star team again in 2017 and improved his on-base percentage by 10 points. He demonstrated the dexterity necessary to keep his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame at shortstop, but his bat provides the bulk of his value.

The exceptionalism of Seager’s hitting stems from the breadth of his skills, explained president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. Seager bats from the left side but does not struggle against left-handed pitchers. He can tame velocity and discern spin. He leavens his instinctive aggression with well-practiced patience.

Seager dealt with inflammation and bone chips in his right elbow during the second half of 2017. He attempted to play through the discomfort last season, only to feel his elbow give way in late April. After undergoing elbow ligament reconstruction, he required an additional round of arthroscopic surgery in August.

The Dodgers new hitting coach is already working his magic. It's all "downhill from here," laughs Dave Roberts

His injuries left a void in the lineup. The team plugged the hole with Manny Machado, who regressed after a sterling start to the season with the Baltimore Orioles and posted a .278 on-base percentage in the postseason. Seager watched from the dugout as his teammates stumbled against the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.

“I think we missed him in a lot of ways, and never did I feel it more acutely than in October,” Friedman said. “He’s just a guy who is really tough to game-plan for. That quality of at-bat, interjected in the middle of our lineup, extends our lineup in ways that I’m not sure we fully appreciated until living without him last year.”

Seager underwent a gentle progression this spring at Camelback Ranch. He reported in trimmer shape than usual, having adopted the dairy-free diet of his mentor Chase Utley. Both his running and his throwing were monitored. Those aspects of his game wrought more concern than his hitting. Seager operates at the plate like a savant, in the eyes of third baseman Justin Turner.

“The ability for him to get his ‘A’ swing off all the time is special,” Turner said.

The first plate appearance of Seager’s season offered a window into his talent. After a leadoff double by Pederson, Seager took a curveball and a changeup from Greinke for balls. The scouting report suggested Greinke would look to disarm left-handed hitters like Seager with pitches down and away. When Seager missed two pitches over the plate, his approach did not waver. He let two more fastballs slip outside the zone and walked. The line moved, and Pederson scored two at-bats later.

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Greinke required 30 pitches to complete the inning. His fastball velocity lagged. His precision suffered. Pederson whacked a two-run shot in the second. Two innings later, after Hernandez and catcher Barnes each went deep, Seager punished Greinke for that lukewarm, mislocated fastball.

As Seager rounded the bases, Pederson felt happiness for his teammate. He commended Seager for his dedication to rehabilitation. But Pederson did not appear surprised at the outcome.

“He makes the game look pretty easy,” Pederson said, before ticking off a list of Seager’s attributes. “Everything is a little different: His bat-to-ball [skills], his swing, his consistency, his pitch recognition. That’s why he consistently hits .300 every year.”

The Dodgers would prefer to keep Seager upright beyond opening day. Roberts intends to be careful with his shortstop. Seager is expected to rest during Sunday’s series finale against the Diamondbacks, with more days off doled out as the season unfolds.

He had waited 337 days to play again at Dodger Stadium. His return Thursday provided moments to savor, and hinted at what 2019 might hold.

“That was something special,” Seager said. “It was really exciting. It was a lot of fun.”

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