The baseball drifted and drifted toward the left-field corner, its flight awakening the Dodgers dugout. Kenta Maeda sprinted out of the batter’s box but slowed as he approached second base. With one swing, he launched his team’s first home run of the season and created the year’s first moment of unbridled joy.
The rest of the team erupted after the ball landed in the seats in the fourth inning of a 7-0 sweep-clinching victory over the San Diego Padres. Clayton Kershaw thrust his arms skyward and howled. Carl Crawford cracked up. Yasiel Puig applauded from the top step.
The group steadied itself as Maeda trotted the bases. His teammates hung back on the bench, feigning ignorance, preparing Maeda for a rookie’s rite of passage. He did not play along. He spread his arms wide and waited for their embrace. The wait was brief, and the admiration ran deep.
“I’ve been playing for eight years, and I have one homer,” Kershaw said. “It was pretty impressive.”
Hours before the game, Maeda sat with catcher A.J. Ellis by a bank of laptops. Will Ireton, Maeda’s interpreter, crouched behind them. Ireton scribbled notes in a palm-sized, black-and-white composition book. Their scouting finished, Maeda retired to the trainers’ room.
While Maeda warmed up, Ellis said “you could tell he was anxious, excited.” The atmosphere at Petco Park was hardly raucous. Entire sections of the upper deck were populated in the single digits.
Maeda inherited a four-run lead after a leadoff triple by Chase Utley, a run-scoring single by Justin Turner, a run-scoring double by Crawford and a two-run single by Joc Pederson. The flurry stunned Padres starter Andrew Cashner and calmed Maeda.
“I was a little nervous at first,” Maeda said. “But my teammates scored four runs for me. That really relaxed me a lot.”
Maeda became a star in Nippon Professional Baseball during eight seasons with the Hiroshima Carp. But he arrived in the U.S. with medical concerns. His physical showed an irregularity, which he asked the team not to discuss publicly, that limited his guaranteed money on an eight-year contract to $25 million.
A 2.35 earned-run average in the Cactus League allayed some concern. Maeda impressed Dodgers officials and rival evaluators with his ability to utilize his changeup and curveball. His slider earned raves in Japan, but he will require more than one off-speed offering to thrive in the majors.
Maeda showed some early jitters, but the Padres could not capitalize. He hung a first-inning curveball to former Dodger Matt Kemp. Crawford caught the ball on the warning track.
An inning later, third baseman Yangervis Solarte dribbled a bunt toward the right of the mound. Maeda pounced on it with his bare hand. His throw skipped into the stands. But Maeda stranded Solarte after two groundouts.
During the spring, Maeda often mentioned his excitement about getting the chance to hit. He had two home runs in Japan, and he won a steak dinner from Roberts with a home run during batting practice.
Cashner does not throw batting practice for a living. But he did flip a slider over the plate. Maeda possessed enough power to deposit it over the fence. He clapped his hands after he passed second and slowed to a near-crawl around third.
“It was disbelief,” Ellis said. “It’s entertaining. And not only were we enjoying Kenta, but we were ragging on each other. JT’s line was ‘Whoever in Vegas had Maeda with the first Dodger home of the year is never working again.’ ”
After he finished receiving praise from his teammates, he returned to the task of silencing the Padres. The streak lasted as Maeda faded in the sixth. Two singles put runners at the corners. First baseman Wil Myers chopped a groundball to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who threw to the plate. The tag by Ellis appeared to reach Cory Spangenberg a moment after Spangenberg touched the plate.
But umpire Jim Wolf declared the runner out. A replay review did not overturn the call and the crowd jeered. Maeda struck out Solarte and jogged into the dugout.
Follow Andy McCullough on Twitter: @McCulloughTimes