Earlier today, I noted that I had picked Clayton Kershaw to finish 1st in the NL Cy Young Award voting over at Baseball Prospectus. I’m now concerned that I didn’t pick him quite high enough, because Kershaw was absolutely sublime in tonight’s season opener, to the point where San Francisco starter Tim Lincecum allowed just one unearned run over seven innings himself, yet there was still no question about who was the most dominant starter on the mound tonight.
Kershaw scattered just four hits over seven scoreless innings, but even that doesn’t tell the true tale. One of those hits should have been an error on a botched toss from James Loney to Kershaw, and one was a bloop that fell just out of Loney’s reach. But while Kershaw was outstanding all around, it’s not just the few hits he allowed that impressed me most, and it’s not the nine strikeouts he put up. It’s not even how bad he made a handful of Giants look, particularly when he offered his curve. It’s the fact that he walked just one and made it through seven innings with fewer than 100 pitches. In years past, it might have taken him 120 pitches to get that far; in starts that aren’t his first of the season, you’d expect to see him continue into the 8th and 9th.
Need more proof of Kershaw’s progression? This was the 11th time in his career that he pitched at least seven innings without allowing more than one walk. Though he’s been in the bigs since mid-2008, seven of the previous ten came after June 27, 2010 – i.e., in the last half a season. We’ve long known that Kershaw had all the talent in the world, but there’s now a clear pattern of him harnessing the wildness and becoming one of the most dominant pitchers in the bigs. Mark my words, this is the year he gets the respect from the general public he deserves. Oh, and he turned 23 two weeks ago.
Kershaw’s game score of 77 is good for the 8th best in Los Angeles Dodger Opening Day history, though it’s sort of hard to compare to the 1960 club allowing Don Drysdale to throw 11 innings and 164 pitches in his first outing. It also tied for the 7th most effective start in his young career. No matter what else happens in 2011, watching Kershaw blossom is going to be a treat.
Coming in a close second to Kershaw on the list of heroes is Matt Kemp, who walked three times (getting on base four times overall), scored the first run, and stole 2nd in the 8th inning, putting himself in position to score on Loney’s double. Basically, the only thing he didn’t do was extend the five-game home run streak he’d carried over from the end of last season, and in terms of realizing the expectations we’ve placed on him, it was a great start.
And then there was Jonathan Broxton, who jogged in to close out a two-run lead in the 9th with a world’s worth of weight on his back. (Seriously, if you could have only seen my Twitter feed at the time…) Getting the first out on a grounder to Loney was a good start, but when Burrell took him deep to left field, you thought for sure the wheels were going to fall off. He managed to get the second out on a tapper in front of the plate, and after a hard-fought battle with rookie Brandon Belt, making his big league debut, ended the game on a soft liner to third.
I’m sure the story tomorrow will be more about the homer than the save, and I won’t begin to pretend that my heart didn’t start to sink when I saw the Burrell ball go out. But there’s positives to be taken from this. The velocity was there, he was aggressive around the plate, he mixed in sliders rather than foolishly pounding in fastball after fastball, and most importantly, he got the job done.
Still, though I like the approach, until the results are consistently there, we’re going to keep hearing the questions.
How about this game for a microcosm of the season we expect? We saw outstanding Dodger pitching, allowing just one run on five hits. We saw mediocre offense, with only one of the two runs being earned and only one extra base hit. And we saw several errors, both mental and physical. Rafael Furcal threw high on a groundball in the first inning, leading to an error, Loney threw high to Kershaw on Belt’s hit, and then we saw Juan Uribe sliding past second base and getting tagged out.
Of course, say what you will about the Dodgers, at least they’re not starting the corpse of Miguel Tejada at shortstop with Burrell and Aubrey Huff in the corner outfield spots. That’s without mentioning whatever the hell it was that caused Buster Posey to try to pick off Kemp at 3rd, leading to the first Dodger run.
All in all? Couldn’t have asked for a better opener. Kershaw vs. Lincecum surpassed the hype, and we come away with a win. 1 down, 161 to go.