Column: Dodgers opening day loss seemed awfully familiar

Los Angeles Times beat writer Andy McCullough and columnist Bill Plaschke discuss Dodgers opening day and their big predictions for the 2018 season.

Matt Kemp began the ninth inning with a single, an afternoon of welcoming cheers still ringing in his ears.

The Dodgers trailed the San Francisco Giants by a single run, but that was about to change.

This was opening day, and the Dodgers never lose on opening day. Kirk Gibson had thrown out the first pitch, and for them to blow this moment would be improbably impossible.

Three Dodgers were going to have a crack at winning Thursday’s game against backup Giants closer Hunter Strickland, and thousands of fans were banging Dodger Stadium seats and stomping their feet and begging for it to happen, because it was definitely going to happen.


Somebody was going to crush one. Somebody was going to bring the season opener full circle by rounding the bases with two dramatic pumps of his fist. On Gibby’s day, somebody was going to play Gibby, creating the sort of magic that has lived in Chavez Ravine for the last five years, and even Kemp stood on first base believing it.

“That would have been epic,’’ he said.

Would have been, but wasn’t. Instead of somebody, there was nobody. Yasmani Grandal struck out flailing. Logan Forsythe fouled out hastily. Joc Pederson grounded out weakly.

Gibson stayed in his suite, Randy Newman remained quiet, the crowd fell silent, and the Dodgers turned their backs and trudged away with a 1-0 loss that felt like 10-0.

Actually, to be perfectly honest, it felt like 5-1, the score of last November’s World Series Game 7 loss to the Houston Astros.

Giant buzz. Full house. Great expectations. An event that felt like a giant balloon ready for a triumphant burst.

Then, three hours of psssst.

This game was dressed like that game, minus the wasted champagne and Yu Darvish. Five months later, it felt like five minutes later. It was as if those Dodgers who sadly congregated in their clubhouse on that dank November night were the same ones who took the field on this bright March afternoon.

“Certainly, it’s in our minds, no doubt, that will always be in our minds,’’ manager Dave Roberts said of the 2017 ending. “But I think our guys have done a very good job of understanding we can’t change it, we can only move forward.’’

That movement will have to start Friday because, for one day, this first loss felt a lot like their last loss.

Clayton Kershaw, unbeaten in seven previous opening day starts, gave up only a Joe Panik homer while fighting through six innings, but it wasn’t enough. Six Dodgers hitters ended innings by stranding runners, and that was way too many.

If you need any further reminder of last November, witness Cody Bellinger, fresh from setting a playoff record with 29 strikeouts and a World Series record with 17.

Last season’s National League rookie of the year scuffled through his first major league opening day by striking out twice, ending both the sixth and eighth innings with a runner on base.

“Kershaw gave up one run and you expect to win when he gives up one, but we couldn’t come through with some hits,’’ Bellinger said. “That’s how it goes sometimes.’’

That’s not usually how it goes around here, the Dodgers generally opening seasons the way Hollywood opens blockbusters, all red carpet and glitter.

The last time the Dodgers had lost on opening day, eight years ago at Pittsburgh, their starting pitcher was Vicente Padilla and their cleanup hitter Manny Ramirez

The last time they’d lost a season opener at home was in 2006, when their starting pitcher was Derek Lowe and their lineup contained Olmedo Saenz, Bill Mueller and Sandy Alomar.

The last time they were shut out in an opener, on a March day at St. Louis in 1998, Mike Piazza was still on the team.

How strange is all this, even if only for a brief baseball minute? OK, when was the last time the Dodgers were in last place and Kershaw had a losing record?

“It’s baseball,’’ said Kemp, who reached base twice in his unexpected Dodgers return. “You got to turn the page and get back to it tomorrow.’’

Before doing that, though, it’s worth remembering the best part of this day, the stirring tribute to Gibson on the 30th anniversary of the season that featured his memorable World Series home run.

The celebration was compellingly not about Gibson’s infamous swing or legendary limp, but about his two celebratory fist pumps as he rounded the bases.

In a tribute video, local celebrities from George Lopez to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did the fist pumps. Then, as Gibson stood in front of the mound to throw out the first pitch, his catcher Orel Hershiser requested that the 50,000 or so fans do the fist pumps, and everyone complied, a stadium wonderfully full of waving arms.

Finally, after throwing the pitch, as he walked to home plate, Gibson did the fist pumps one more time, and it was harder than you think.

Three years ago, Gibson was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and Thursday he talked about the effects of the neurodegenerative disorder.

“It was a real kick in the ass when I found out,’’ he said. “A lot of things I enjoy have been taken away from me because of that disease. You have to deal with different things.’’

He continued, “When I walk, my arm is not going to swing. I’m going to limp. I’m going to have a hard time doing small things with my hands. When I shave with my right hand, it’s going to clinch up. I’m not going to sleep good.”

Gibson, 60, said he faces the challenge like he faced that Dennis Eckersley backdoor slider.

“What are you going to do, you’re going to be a hermit and go sit in a corner and be depressed?’’ he said. “That’s what Parky wants you to do, it wants you to lay down and mire in your own misery but I’m not going to do that. I never have.’’

So he showed up at Dodger Stadium. He pumped his fists. It was a thing of beauty. The day that ended in a loss began with a much bigger win.

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke