Welcome to baseball in Australia. MLB’s opening series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks at the ancient Sydney Cricket Ground, also known as Zack Greinke’s least favorite international baseball venue.
It’s the first game of the regular season, which seems reason enough to crawl out of bed at 4 a.m. to write a running diary.
After a rain delay of nearly an hour, we get to the introductions of the players. Unfortunately, it appears the Diamondbacks' PA announcer is reading off the names instead of Crocodile Dundee. The Dodgers look as if they’re lined up for a funeral instead of a baseball game as nobody smiles and only veteran pitcher Jamey Wright waves to the crowd. I wonder whether Greinke is up watching in Arizona (he didn’t make the trip).
Although each team had to activate 25 players, the teams were allowed to exempt three players who will be eligible to be activated for openers back in the U.S. The Dodgers exempted Greinke, Dan Haren and Brandon League. And with Matt Kemp on the disabled list and Carl Crawford on the paternity list, the Dodgers’ roster includes Alex Guerrero, Chone Figgins and Mike Baxter. Hold your excitement, Dodgers fans. Both teams decided to go with 12 pitchers and 13 position players, which means 10 relievers for two games. That seems a little excessive, but maybe understandable considering starters Clayton Kershaw and Wade Miley might not be quite ready to go deep into the game.
Miley, going with the full beard and long hair, coasts through a 1-2-3 inning, including striking out leadoff hitter Yasiel Puig on an 0-2 slider in the dirt. It will be interesting to see how pitchers attack Puig this season. He hit .409 on inside pitches in 2013, but Miley started him off with an inside fastball Puig took for a strike. The Dodgers’ lineup includes ex-Met Justin Turner batting second. Your most expensive team in baseball, everyone!
Kershaw works out of a two-on jam, getting Mark Trumbo to ground out to shortstop on a 2-1 inside fastball. The Diamondbacks went Paul Goldschmidt-Martin Prado-Trumbo in the 3-4-5 spots, mildly interesting in that power-hitting Trumbo is hitting fifth behind Prado. Although Prado is hardly your conventional cleanup hitter, it makes sense to hit Trumbo fifth because of his low OBP.
Adrian Gonzalez walks on four pitches and then Scott Van Slyke crushes a pitch to deep left field that Trumbo climbs the fence in an attempt to haul in. Good effort except the ball lands about six feet to his right and at the base of the fence. I mean, it isn't hard to tell Trumbo is really a first baseman the D-backs are force-feeding into left field. Van Slyke gets a double to move Gonzalez to third. After Juan Uribe strikes out, Gonzalez scores on Andre Ethier’s grounder to second for the season’s first run. I half expected a referee to come out and do this. (OK, that’s Australian Rules Football, not cricket.)
Miley gets A.J. Ellis to fly out, so limiting the Dodgers to just one run after runners were at second and third with no outs is a positive. Of course, with Kershaw pitching and the Dodgers having a dynamite bullpen, one run might be all they need, especially when you factor in that the Australian national team just blanked the D-backs 5-0 in their final tuneup game.
Kershaw struggled with his fastball command in his spring training appearances and allowed 15 runs in 14⅔ innings while giving up 20 hits and three home runs. He’s a little sharper today, although he takes nine pitches to finally retire Miley and has 48 pitches through three innings, so he’s not going to get a 94-pitch complete-game shutout on Opening Day the way he did a year ago.
Scott Van Slyke, have a day! After just missing a home run in his first at-bat, he lines a 1-1 pitch just over the fence and just inside the right-field foul pole for a two-run homer. Van Slyke is in the lineup only because Kemp and Crawford aren’t here, but his two hits do point out that Don Mattingly’s outfield dilemma will -- or should -- actually go beyond just the Kemp/Crawford/Ethier playing time issue. Considering Crawford and Ethier can’t really hit left-handers, you can make the argument that Van Slyke is the best option to start against lefties. We'll see how much playing time he gets when everyone is healthy.
As the MLB Network announcers (Matt Vasgersian and John Smoltz) discuss, another reason Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball: Only nine stolen bases were attempted against him last year, and he picked off seven runners, second most in the National League. Oh, he also drove in 10 runs in 92 plate appearances. Chris Owings grounds out with a runner on first to end the inning. Kershaw is at 65 pitches, 41 strikes, with seven ground balls and three strikeouts. I think Dodgers fans can rest easy about those awful spring training numbers.
Puig strikes out for the second time. Speaking of spring training struggles, Puig had hit .122 in Arizona, 5-for-41, with just one walk (although also with just five strikeouts). He did homer against an Australian league All-Star team Thursday.
Quick aside: The first Australian in the major leagues was a 19th-century second baseman named Joe Quinn, who played 17 seasons and collected 1,800 hits. Quinn was also the unfortunate player-manager for most of the season for the worst team in history, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, a team that went 20-134 (12-104 under Quinn, including a 1-40 stretch to finish the season). Quinn’s family moved to Iowa when he was about 10 years old, so many consider infielder Craig Shipley, who debuted in 1986 and played 11 seasons, the true Australian trailblazer in MLB. Here's a profile of Quinn, and here's a bio on Shipley, who works in the front office for the Diamondbacks.
Well, Kershaw won't finish with a 0.00 ERA this season. Goldschmidt doubles to lead off the inning and scores on two groundouts to make the score 3-1.
Will Harris tosses two scoreless frames to keep the Diamondbacks close. Meanwhile, Kershaw comes out for the bottom of the seventh at 91 pitches. Can't imagine he'd go much above 100 this early on. Indeed, the TV cameras flash to Chris Perez and J.P. Howell warming up in the Dodgers' bullpen. With one out, Gerardo Parra reaches when Turner bobbles his slow chopper for an error, bringing up pinch hitter Eric Chavez. This isn’t a great matchup for the D-backs, considering Chavez hasn't homered off a lefty since 2007, but I guess Kirk Gibson is hoping Chavez will get lucky and run into something. He doesn’t; Kershaw quickly disposes of him in three pitches. That ends Kershaw’s night at 102 pitches. Perez comes in and gets A.J. Pollock to fly out to right.
With two outs, Gonzalez lifts a fly ball to left field that Trumbo "races" after and doesn't get to with a belly flop. Let's put it this way: At least the Diamondbacks are strong defensively in center and right with Pollock and Parra. Brad Ziegler gets out of the inning without any damage.
Puig, 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, swings against J.J. Putz, makes loud contact, drops his bat as if the ball is going far and watches Pollock make the catch in reasonably deep right-center. The wind apparently knocked it down, but Puig is going to draw flak for acting as if he had hit one out.
Kenley Jansen, who fanned 111 in 76⅔ innings last year, comes on for the save. He fans Trumbo on three pitches, Trumbo waving helplessly at an 0-2 high fastball. Miguel Montero fists a grounder to shortstop, but Owings walks on a 3-2 pitch that dips low, bringing up Parra as the tying run. But he taps back to the mound and the Dodgers have the first win of 2014.
I guess the script went pretty much as you would have expected: The best pitcher on the planet was very good, and what could be the best bullpen in the majors tossed 2⅓ hitless innings.
The best part: We have another game later today at 10 p.m. ET. You up for a doubleheader?