Joe Panik’s home run off Clayton Kershaw is the difference in Dodgers’ 1-0 opening day loss to Giants
Los Angeles Times beat writer Andy McCullough and columnist Bill Plaschke discuss Dodgers opening day and their big predictions for the 2018 season.
The symptoms of a hangover vary from victim to victim. Your head might rattle. Your stomach might churn. Your vision might blur, your hands might shake, your entire being might cry out for more rest.
The past five months offered the Dodgers a chance to recover from the hangover of the 2017 World Series, when the team finished one victory short of the championship that has eluded the franchise since 1988. Yet on Thursday afternoon, during a 1-0 loss to the San Francisco Giants in front of 53,595 fans at Dodger Stadium, the team displayed the characteristics of a club still recuperating from the ordeal.
The final game of 2017 ended with a whimper. The first game of 2018 looked similar. The at-bats were brief. The lineup’s inability to recognize the umpire’s strike zone was notable. A quality effort from Clayton Kershaw was wasted. The supplications from the crowd, rooting for a team who had not lost on opening day since 2010, changed nothing.
“Definitely,” first baseman Cody Bellinger said, “not the offensive performance we were looking for.”
One defeat does not foretell doom. The pomp and circumstance of a season opener — this one complete wth military flyovers, extended introductions and a first pitch hurled by 1988 World Series hero Kirk Gibson — creates the perception of significance for one game in a campaign of 162. It is hard to envision these Dodgers, favored to win the National League West for the sixth season in a row, sleepwalking through an entire season. The roster is deep. The lineup is laden with stars. The competition is diminished.
Even so, the Dodgers managed only three singles against Giants starter Ty Blach. Kershaw provided two of those. The offense went three for 15 against a relief corps of Josh Osich, Cory Gearrin, Tony Watson and Hunter Strickland. As a whole, they stranded nine men and went hitless in five at-bats with runners in scoring position.
“I probably should have hit Clayton third,” manager Dave Roberts said.
The offense squandered six innings of one-run baseball from Kershaw, who set a franchise record with his eighth consecutive season-opening start. Kershaw operated under duress for much of the day. He gave up eight hits and issued two walks. San Francisco advanced a runner to third base in three of the first four innings, but could not break through until San Francisco second baseman Joe Panik pulled a fastball down the right-field line for a solo homer in the fifth.
“We didn’t get the job done today,” outfielder Matt Kemp said. “We had chances. Kershaw pitched his butt off. The bullpen came in, did a great job. We’ve got to at least score one run if they do that.”
As the players gathered Thursday morning, a few remarked how it felt like they had never left. The front office made only cosmetic changes to a team that won 104 games last season. Several Dodgers worked out at the ballpark during the winter. The players hung out on several occasions at weddings. Roberts hoped to turn the page from 2017, but the connections still lingered.
Heading into Thursday, the biggest question concerned the status of the ballpark. A flood from the drainage system stopped Tuesday’s final exhibition game. The damage extended into Roberts’ office and the coaches room.
Roberts spent Wednesday at his home outside of San Diego. He returned to find repairs made to his quarters. Inside the clubhouse, he spotted Kershaw readying himself for the game.
Kershaw permitted zero runs in the 21 1/3 innings he pitched during the spring. Roberts commended him for the sharpness of his offspeed pitches and downplayed the decreased velocity of his fastball. Kershaw sat at 90-91 mph on Thursday, a touch below the 92-93 mph he displayed in 2017. On opening day last season, Kershaw’s average fastball clocked at 93.38 mph, according to Brooks Baseball.
San Francisco stressed Kershaw from the start. He gave up back-to-back singles to open the game. Kershaw defused that threat by inducing a double play off the bat of outfielder Andrew McCutchen on an inside slider. Kershaw spotted a backdoor slider to fan catcher Buster Posey for the third out.
An inning later, Kershaw survived a one-out double by outfielder Hunter Pence and a single by first baseman Brandon Belt, who had not had a hit off Kershaw since 2012. The fourth inning brought more traffic, with a leadoff walk by Posey and a one-out flare from Pence. With runners at the corners, Kershaw struck out Belt with a curveball and coaxed a flyout from Brando Crawford.
“You give up eight hits, you give up a lot of runs and ‘You get blasted,’” Kershaw said. “If you only only give up one run, ‘you scattered them.’ It was one of those days.”
Kershaw relented in the fifth. He retired the first two batters before Panik stepped to the plate. Kershaw dropped into a sidearm delivery and pounded a 2-2 fastball on Panik’s hands. Panik was ready. He turned on the ball and watched it soar toward the right-field pole. Panik hung around the plate until he realized the ball would stay fair, the first run given up by Kershaw since Game 5 of the World Series.
“He clipped it perfectly,” Kershaw said. “It had enough backspin to come back in, I guess.”
Due up fourth in the bottom of the inning, Kershaw hunkered onto the bench. Up to this point, the Dodgers’ offense had recorded two hits against Blach, who finished last season with a 4.78 earned-run average. Despite his middling statistics, Blach can cast a spell over the Dodgers. In seven prior appearances, he posted a 2.23 ERA.
One of those two hits Thursday belonged to Kershaw. Roberts sent him to the plate in the bottom of the fifth. Kershaw blooped a two-out single off the glove of Crawford. Blach did not crumble: With two runners aboard, Chris Taylor grounded out.
Taylor squandered another opportunity in the seventh. He came up again with two on and two out after singles by Yasmani Grandal and Chase Utley. Taylor worked the count full against Gearrin, but he froze on a hanging slider and flipped his bat in disgust.
“I was thinking too much, I think,” Taylor said. “Taking that two-strike slider right down the middle was inexcusable.”
The Dodgers did not advance another runner beyond first base. Kemp started the ninth with a single. He allowed himself to dream. He spent three years away from the organization, and basked in his return as a Dodger. Then he watched as the next three hitters made outs against Strickland.
“That would have been epic,” Kemp said. “It just didn’t happen.”
The hangover might not last beyond Thursday. But for the first day of the 2018 season, the Dodgers remained in the throes of recovery.
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