Monday, April 1, 2013
Dodgers, Kershaw poised for success
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLosAngeles.com
LOS ANGELES -- They arrived before 10 on Monday morning to take a look at the new, old place. To see what all that money they spent on upgrades to Dodger Stadium this offseason had bought. How it had changed, but also how it had retained its sun-kissed charm.
They were in a hurry to see it, but not to be seen. In fact, the first time the Dodgers' new owners stepped out onto the field was just a few minutes before the first pitch.
And even then, Magic Johnson held the ball for only a few seconds before yielding to Dodgers legend Sandy Koufax in one of the best baseball moments anyone at the ballpark for the Dodgers' 4-0 win over the San Francisco Giants Monday has ever seen.
Magic Johnson no longer has to supply the excitement and hope to Dodgers fans, who found both at Dodger Stadium on Opening Day.
After that, Johnson, Dodgers chairman Mark Walter and his partners from Guggenheim Baseball Management mostly just sat quietly in the owner's box until Clayton Kershaw jacked a solo home run to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning and break a scoreless tie.
Then, they went nuts like the rest of the sellout crowd of 53,138, as Kershaw sprinted around the bases.
It was the kind of magic that always seems to happen on Opening Day. The kind of magic special players like Kershaw have a knack for creating. The kind of magic, frankly, that these new Dodgers owners are paying top dollar for.
And if all goes to plan, the other Magic, the one with the great smile and charisma oozing from his pores, can just sit back and watch it from the owner's box.
He'll still have to be around for the occasional photo op or news conference. For as long as he is part of this ownership group, he will be the face of the franchise.
But it's not like last season, when Johnson had to be everywhere and everyone to everybody. When he had to trade on his good name and reputation to help fans forget about Frank McCourt's sins and the fact that the team's Opening Day payroll in 2012 was under $100 million.
No, those days seem to be over for the Dodgers' owners, because the rest of it -- restoring credibility, putting their money where their mouth is, fielding a team befitting of a large market like Los Angeles and sprucing up the field the Dodgers play on and the clubhouse they live in -- has been checked off the list.
It's time to play now. For the players to be the stars. For the Dodgers to win again.
The team's owners have sent that message directly and indirectly this spring.
Monday, they brought it home.
"We think the players will rise to this year's challenge," Walter told ESPNLosAngeles.com.
It's their show now. Ownership has delivered and, in some cases, over-delivered. The highest payrolls don't always win, but they always create outsized expectations.
"We'll continue to stress working on the big picture, but for now, we've done all the things we can do," Dodgers president Stan Kasten said. "And if we can find more to do, we will."
That no longer seems to be the Dodgers' problem, which takes some getting used to after the lean, McCourt-run years when general manager Ned Colletti had to do things like let Hiroki Kuroda sign with the New York Yankees and split the $12 million he'd been making between two other pitchers -- Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano -- in order to come in under budget.
Now, the club Colletti has assembled has a different problem: living up to expectations. And baseball can be funny about that sometimes.
You have to get hot at the right time. You have to avoid injury. You have to have most of your guys do what they've mostly done and another few do what they've never done.
A little chemistry helps, too.
"That's true," Kasten said. "But it helps to have good starting pitching, like we do now. It's good to have middle-of-the-order starting pitchers, like we do. It's good to have a strong bullpen, like we do. I think we have a lot of good strong pieces that enable us to contend all year.
"But we don't take anything for granted because we know our competition is very tough."
Kershaw pretty much mowed down that competition on Monday. He was as masterful as he was efficient, needing just 94 pitches to shut out the Giants. His curveball was crisp, nasty and beautiful.
In the top of the ninth, he broke off a 72 mph hook to Pablo Sandoval that seemed to make the whole stadium gasp. The next pitch came in at 93 mph on the black of the outside corner. Sandoval managed to put the ball in play on the next pitch, grounding out to Luis Cruz at third base to close out the game.
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Catcher A.J. Ellis made a beeline for Kershaw, shaking his head almost in disbelief at the performance the young lefty had put on for Opening Day.
"We know what the expectations are for us, and we'll embrace 'em," Ellis said. "But if we can find a way to get Kershaw on two days' rest every time, that might help."
Walter wasn't far behind. As has been his habit, he stepped over the railing and onto the field to celebrate the win with the team as "I Love L.A." played over the stadium loudspeakers. Pretty quickly, he found Kershaw and bear-hugged him.
Soon, Walter will likely sign the ace to one of the largest contracts in baseball history.
Not so long ago, back when McCourt was making those decisions, the scene might have been awkward as both fans and Kershaw wondered if what should happen really would.
That's no longer an issue, or even a question. The only thing still to be settled is when the deal gets done.
Which meant on this day, it was just about a game.
Kershaw's magical game, which Magic Johnson watched from the stands.