When pitchers Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, the two options the Dodgers were considering to start on opening day, met with manager Dave Roberts to discuss the prestigious assignment, Kershaw emphasized one point: He didn’t want his candidacy to be based on the past.
“We kind of all got together,” Kershaw said, “and I was like, ‘I don’t want a charity opening day. If you want me to do it, great, but if you want Walker to do it, great too.’”
Buehler is the Dodgers’ ace-in-the-making — if he’s not there yet — after several resounding performances in important games over his first two full seasons as a big leaguer. Kershaw’s peak is behind him, but he remains one of the top pitchers in baseball.
On Monday, Roberts announced Kershaw would get the start against the San Francisco Giants at Dodger Stadium on March 26. The manager added that Buehler, David Price, Julio Urías and Alex Wood will follow Kershaw in the rotation, in that order.
“I think it was a difficult decision in the sense of what Walker has done, what we expect him to do this year,” Roberts said. “So I think that’s a compliment to both players. But I think, ultimately, having Clayton start opening day made the most sense for us — that day and also going forward.”
The decision was not surprising. It was made weeks ago, but the Dodgers wanted to ensure Kershaw remained healthy through a bulk of spring training before going public with the choice.
Kershaw has logged 4 2/3 scoreless innings in two Cactus League starts this spring. On Monday, he tossed four scoreless innings against the Mexican League’s Toros de Tijuana — a club featuring former Dodger Luis Cruz and managed by former All-Star shortstop Omar Vizquel — on a backfield at Camelback Ranch. The left-hander threw 67 pitches. He struck out four, walked two and gave up three hits.
Most importantly, he hasn’t encountered health issues in his preparation for the regular season.
Roberts selected Kershaw the Dodgers’ opening day starter last year Feb. 19 for what would have been the ninth season in a row — a franchise record — but Kershaw was sidelined because of a shoulder injury days after the announcement. He began the season on the injured list. Instead, Hyun-Jin Ryu got the opening day nod.
“It was hard a little bit,” Kershaw said. “You want to be a part of it. It’s also kind of fun to take in an opening day, especially how well it went. I think we hit eight homers so it was really fun for that. It was a little sad, but I got over it quick. But it was a little sad, for sure.”
Kershaw didn’t make his debut until April 15, but avoided the injured list for the rest of the campaign. His fastball velocity dipped again to a career-low 90.5 mph, according to FanGraphs, but he deftly worked with the diminished repertoire to finish 16-5 with a 3.03 earned-run average in 178 1/3 innings. The left-hander was selected to his eighth All-Star team and began his season with 23 consecutive starts logging at least six innings.
Kershaw, who turns 32 on March 19, traveled to Driveline Baseball in Washington at the beginning of the offseason and adjusted his offseason regimen seeking an edge, if not some of his lost velocity. His fastball touched 93 mph in his first Cactus League start, according to the stadium radar gun, but has been steady between 90 and 91 mph.
“I’m encouraged and positive about this season,” Kershaw said. “I’m optimistic and so, hopefully, if that means anything, it’d be great.”
The three-time Cy Young Award winner and 2014 National League most valuable player will begin his 13th major league season with 169 wins and a 2.44 ERA. He is entering the second year of a three-year contract extension he signed after the 2018 season. He’ll begin it back on the mound on opening day for the ninth time.
“I don’t take it lightly,” Kershaw said. “It is an honor. It is just one game, but it is an honor to get the start. Opening day is a special day in baseball and to get to be a part of it is really cool.”
Dodger pitchers with most opening day starts for team
Clayton Kershaw, 9 (includes 2020)
Don Drysdale, 7
Don Sutton, 7
Fernando Valenzuela, 6
Ramon Martinez, 5
Carl Erskine, 4
Orel Hershiser, 4
Van Lingle Mungo, 4
Nap Rucker, 4
Note: Sandy Koufax started on opening day only one time for the Dodgers, in 1964.