When Clayton Kershaw took the long walk from the Dodgers’ dugout to the bullpen to begin warming up for his season debut Monday night, he was surrounded by the strangest of sounds.
The usual cheering was muffled and tepid. During a moment when he traditionally receives a giant ovation, it was as if fans barely recognized him.
Soon thereafter, when Kershaw stood on the mound to face the third batter for the Cincinnati Reds, he heard another odd Chavez Ravine noise.
Fans were cheering for the hitter, because that hitter’s name was Yasiel Puig, the former Dodgers hero returning home for the first time since traded to the Reds this winter. It sounded like boos, but it wasn’t boos. It was “Puiiig,” and Kershaw was enveloped in it.
Then it happened. Of course it happened. Puig went deep, a two-run jack, powering a slider over the center-field fence. He flipped the bat. He skipped around the bases. More noise. More “Puiiig.”
This was his opening day, but there was no welcome back. This was his first start since Oct.28 of last year, when he allowed three home runs in seven innings to the victorious Boston Red Sox in the clinching Game 5 of the World Series, and fans acted as if it were still that dreary autumn night.
He was attempting to make a triumphant comeback from a bout with shoulder inflammation, but folks seemed more interested in the return of the other guy.
Kershaw had a quick glimpse of what it is like when you’re 31 years old and the world is starting to think you’re no longer the ace and everyone is treating you like just another pitcher.
Then Kershaw proved otherwise.
He settled. He fooled. He dealt. He didn’t blow anybody away, but he didn’t give in to anybody either. He’s not just another pitcher. Not yet. Not even close.
After the Puig home run, Kershaw retired the next nine batters and rolled through the rest of his night virtually unblemished, leaving the game in a 2-all tie after the seventh inning.
The Dodgers eventually won, 4-3, on Joc Pederson’s two-run, walk-off homer in the ninth, but a part of that victory belonged to Kershaw.
“He is special when he’s on the mound. He can do it all. He kept us in the game,” Pederson said during the postgame on-field interview.
In those seven innings, Kershaw allowed just the homer and four singles, striking out six with no walks, breezing through 84 pitches and giving the exhausted Dodgers bullpen a bit of a break.
In the sixth inning, he struck out the side on a dozen pitches, inspiring such that organist Dieter Ruehle immediately played Kershaw’s trademark song, “We Are Young.’’
Perhaps most impressively, he eventually turned those “Puiiigs” into boos, real live boos, after striking out Puig flailing in the fourth. When Puig came to the plate in the seventh, the boos continued, and even after Puig singled to left, there was mostly silence.
“It was great. I’ll take that,” Kershaw said afterward with a smile of apparent relief. “It was a fun night all the way around, other than that first inning.’’
Oh, yeah, about that first inning ...
“I wish I could have done anything but give up a homer to Puig in the first at-bat,” Kershaw acknowledged. “He put a great swing on the ball. Unfortunately, I’ve seen him do that for while here. Thankful that it didn’t beat us tonight, got to settle down after that, get through seven.”
Puig might have won more battles, but Kershaw won his part of the night, which wasn’t easy given the intensity of that home run moment.
“Obviously there was a lot built up into this game,” manager Dave Roberts said. “For Clayton to kind of reset after that two-run first, it really was no surprise to us.”
This sort of return was also a gift for this mediocre early part of the season. While Kershaw has been recovering, the Dodgers’ rotation has been struggling. Before the game, the Dodgers ranked ninth in the National League in starting pitcher ERA at 4.46, and when is the last time that has happened?
Walker Buehler, Julio Urias and Kenta Maeda have struggled. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill are hurt. Ross Stripling has been the only reliable starter, and he could be soon going back to the bullpen.
“We’ll take this from him every time; we’ll bank that,” Roberts said. “You never know, coming out of rehab and seeing it how goes and the emotion and things like that. I’m really excited for Clayton, just to get that first start and go out there and compete like you know he was going to, then to be rewarded and have the success he did, it was a really good thing.’’
It turns out, Kershaw fed off that emotion.
“It was fun,” he said. “It was just fun to be back pitching in games that matter at Dodger Stadium. Thankful to be back here. A lot of fun.”
The stadium was sold out for Jackie Robinson Day, with baseball honoring the man who broke baseball’s color barrier on this day in 1947, every player on every team wearing No.42.
The Dodgers traditionally lead the celebration, and they did it again, with pregame ceremonies featuring Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, and his children Sharon and David Robinson.
Herbie Hancock, elegantly moderating the ceremony, read quotes from Robinson. Forty-two Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars and alumni each recited a word that symbolized Robinson. Aloe Blacc sang. Even Vin Scully made an appearance, drawing the largest cheers of the night.
In the Dodgers’ dugout, baseball’s only African American manager was reverent.
“For me, it’s a big opportunity and big responsibility I hold very dear to my heart,” Roberts said. “To put this uniform on today, wear that number today, 42, it’s always special.”
It was truly a night that began, and ended, in special fashion.