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Thursday, April 4, 2013
What have we learned so far?

By Mark Saxon

The sun started breaking through the clouds in the early innings of Monday's game, ushering in a new season and ushering out the suspense created by a busy offseason.

A sellout crowd on Opening Day was treated to an electric victory, Clayton Kershaw willing the Dodgers to a confident first step. Then, things got wobbly. The Dodgers' offense stayed stuck on sputtering and their fielding got a bit wayward, the strong-willed San Francisco Giants heading home after taking two of three games. This was just the first scuffle in what figures to be a strong rivalry.

It's too soon to draw conclusions, either about the state of the rivalry or about the Dodgers' trajectory. We can only start to look at clues, so here are some things to ponder going forward:

Are the hitters following the plan?


Hitting coach Mark McGwire and manager Don Mattingly would like the Dodgers' hitters to be more selective at the plate. They'd like them to grind through good at-bats. For much of Wednesday's game, they were, laying off the usual assortment of elevated fastballs and low off-speed pitches from Tim Lincecum.

The other part of the equation -- putting a good swing on pitches to hit -- hasn't come as quickly. Many of the Dodgers' key hitters have not gotten their timing down, it appears. The Dodgers barely touched Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, which is perfectly forgivable, but then they couldn't punish Tim Lincecum for his seven walks.

“I wasn’t exactly hitting my spots, so I knew it was going to come down to the grind," Lincecum told reporters afterward. "I just try to pitch with my heart out there when I know things aren’t going well.”

The Dodgers went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position. They let the pitcher win a battle of wills -- not the tone the Dodgers wanted to set early.

Matt Kemp looks surprisingly uncomfortable


He says he's healthy. The Dodgers say he is healthy. So, let's assume that he's healthy.

But Matt Kemp still hasn't produced at his usual levels since the collision with the outfield wall last August and the shoulder surgery that followed a couple of months later. He batted .214 in his 28 games after the injury, hit .250 with one home run in spring training and went 0-for-10 in the opening series.

Plenty of time to heat up, of course, but he doesn't look in sync yet.

With the bases loaded and nobody out in the pivotal moment of Wednesday's game, Kemp got ahead of reliever George Kontos 2-and-0. Kontos went to his bread and butter, a sinker in, and Kemp swung, topping a hard bouncer to third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who turned a rally-killing double play.

Kemp said later he shouldn't have swung at the pitch. He's caught in between right now and the Dodgers probably aren't going to win many series in which their No. 3 hitter goes hitless. The sooner Kemp gets comfortable, the sooner the rest of the lineup can settle in.

Carl Crawford looks surprisingly comfortable

First, he seemed headed for the disabled list. Then, when it looked like he had accelerated his recovery, Carl Crawford wasn't exactly giving off confident vibes. As camp was winding down, he said, "Whatever is left, that's what I'm going to give from here on out."

It looks like he's got quite a bit left, and that's promising news for the Dodgers. Crawford looks like his old self, slapping tough pitches hard the other way and running well. Even his throws look perfectly acceptable.

Plus, when Mattingly gave him the second game of the season off, he sounded a bit feisty. That's good. When a player is fighting to overcome an injury, it's good if they carry a bit of a grudge. It might push them harder.

Pitching looks fine

In a way, this series was a misleading preview of what the Dodgers can expect from the mound. Because of some minor injury setbacks to Zack Greinke and Chad Billingsley in spring training, the Dodgers were using their No. 5 starter as their No. 2 starter and their No. 4 starter as their No. 3 starter.

So, the fact that Hyun-Jin Ryu and Josh Beckett were out-pitched by Bumgarner and Lincecum shouldn't alarm anyone. Kershaw was ace-like and the bullpen, used sparingly in the three games, was great. Now, the Dodgers have Greinke and Kershaw lined up for the Pittsburgh series. Once Billingsley gets back next week, the Dodgers will have the rotation they were so excited about all winter.

Support is strong

You can tell a lot about a fan base's energy level by gauging the drop-off from Opening Day to the Tuesday night that typically follows. In places like Oakland and Tampa, attendance falls off a cliff.

The Dodgers had a respectable 45,000 fans or so for the second game of the series and a strong 53,000 Wednesday when they gave away hooded sweatshirts. As the season progresses, the Dodgers are going to have to win to keep the excitement going, but it's starting from a good place.