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Column: As they try to bounce back from awful 2017 season, Giants take early lead on Dodgers

ON BASEBALL

Bruce Bochy had his back against the wall.

No, really. The new season would start in two hours. The old season had been awful.

His ace had tumbled off a dirt bike, messed up his pitching shoulder, and missed almost the entire first half of the season. By the time the ace came back, the closer and his ailing arm were gone. The team limped home 40 games behind the Dodgers.

When the San Francisco Giants awoke a week ago, they had Madison Bumgarner and Mark Melancon back. Then the ace went down again, and then the closer went down again. The Giants were about to begin their season in the stadium in which “Game Over” became famous. For the Giants, season over?

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“You can’t think like that,” Bochy said.

Bochy sat atop the bench in the visiting dugout, his back pressed against the wall, his right knee crossed over his left.

The Giants’ manager was not happily talking up this year. He was swatting away questions about starting without Bumgarner, Melancon and, for that matter, No. 3 starter Jeff Samardzija.

“We’re not going to make excuses,” Bochy said. “We saw how that worked for us last year.”

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Disinfecting the clubhouse does not make up 40 games. Neither does beating Clayton Kershaw, but it’s a start, and a step toward avoiding an early burial. The Giants play seven of their first nine games against the Dodgers.

A week ago, Bumgarner and Samardzija might have started four of those games. But, on the Giants’ last day in Arizona, Bochy told Ty Blach he would move up in the rotation, from the 11th game of the season to the first.

And, as the Giants prepared for Thursday’s opener, Bochy popped into the pitchers’ pregame meeting to let Hunter Strickland know he would be the closer.

Then the teams took the field, and the one without three of its best pitchers used five others to put up a shutout, on a day the other team started the greatest pitcher of his generation.

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This was not a changing of the guard. Kershaw gave up one run, on a home run that Bochy called “strange,” on a ball Joe Panik deposited just inside the foul pole.

“You see it starting to curve a little bit,” Panik said, “you figure it’s going to keep curving.”

Blach pitched five shutout innings, giving up two hits to Kershaw and one to the Dodgers’ position players. Blach barely breaks 90 mph, but he has faced Kershaw three times and won twice.

Blach barely betrays any excitement. Strickland, who worked the ninth, was delighted to share his excitement.

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“It’s our rival,” he said. “It’s a packed stadium. They’re definitely doing it right here. This is what you dream of.”

He loved the pregame flyover, although an opening-day special event was not the whole of what he meant by the Dodgers doing it right.

“The marketing, the media, everything,” Strickland said. “The atmosphere here. It’s pretty fun.”

Bochy deflected the predictions of doom. He believes the team can contend for a playoff spot, but he did not go so far as to guarantee one to Giants fans.

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“I think they should expect a good year,” he said, “a winning season.”

In the Dodgers’ clubhouse, 82 wins would be a failure. In the Giants’ clubhouse, 82 wins might at least wash away the bitterness of last season.

“I know it’s 162 games,” Panik said. “But after last year …”

He talked about pride, and winning, and not wanting to chase the Dodgers. In 2017, the Giants never were ahead of the Dodgers, not by a single game, not for a single day.

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In 2018, one day into the season, the Giants lead the Dodgers by one game. It’s a start, at least.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin


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