Commentary

Kershaw settles in in Australia

Dodgers ace able to soak up unique atmosphere after snuffing out D-backs

Updated: March 22, 2014, 1:30 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

SYDNEY -- The Los Angeles Dodgers pondered leaving Clayton Kershaw behind in Arizona when they jetted over to Australia for Opening Day. It might sound crazy, but they really did consider it.

They're trying to keep a handle on Kershaw's workload, and the trip, followed by a week off back home, would mess with his routine. A handful of the Dodgers' other star players, including Zack Greinke and Carl Crawford, stayed behind. The Dodgers left nearly as much payroll behind in the desert as the Arizona Diamondbacks brought with them, in fact.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw wanted the ball in Sydney and responded with a typical performance in a 3-1 win over the Diamondbacks.

But these games, despite the exotic backdrop, aren't subject to an exchange rate. When the wins and losses get added up to see which teams go to the playoffs, March 22 will carry exactly as much weight as Sept. 22.

And let the record show that Kershaw made his fourth straight Opening Day start and the Dodgers beat the Diamondbacks 3-1 on a gusty, festive night at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Kershaw hadn't exactly been starry-eyed about the trip when reporters asked him about it early in camp. He made it sound like something to be endured rather than savored, although he showed a tad more diplomacy than Greinke.

After you sign a seven-year, $215 million contract, teams typically will try to accommodate you, so even a grudging acceptance might have signaled trouble. But when Don Mattingly and Kershaw got around to discussing whether he'd pitch in Australia, the manager was pleasantly surprised.

"He was glad [to pitch]," Mattingly said.

There are plenty of reasons not to like Kershaw's new contract if you're prone to fret about long-term deals for pitchers -- and you're probably right to. For one, it's a lot of money. Secondly, pitchers get hurt. Thirdly, they lose their stuff. But the Dodgers knew enough about Kershaw to know there were plenty of things they didn't have to worry about.

[+] EnlargeDiamondbacks and Dodgers
Cameron Spencer/Getty ImagesThe Dodgers traveled more than 8,000 miles to a 160-year-old cricket field to pick up their first win of the season.

You don't worry he'll get lazy. You don't worry he won't care. You don't worry he'll be selfish.

"He went into Donnie's office and said, 'I want the ball in Australia,'" catcher A.J. Ellis said. "That kind of speaks to his character, who he is as a teammate, who he is as a pitcher and a competitor."

Kershaw has had far more artful performances than Saturday night's. His counterpart, Wade Miley, had more strikeouts than he did. In his previous Opening Day start, Kershaw held the San Francisco Giants scoreless and broke a scoreless tie with a home run. But this one was fraught with certain annoyances, certain deviations that, in other circumstances, could have made for a difficult first start.

As the week went on, Kershaw and the rest of the team seemed to relax into the setting. They even (gasp!) had a little fun. On his 26th birthday, Kershaw got to hold a baby kangaroo. How cool is that?

Kershaw's focus can make him an intimidating presence on the mound, even to teammates. Saturday, he seemed to soak up the atmosphere once the win was in hand. He stood doing a TV interview in a cutoff T-shirt, shower shoes and basketball shorts, then high-fived the fans leaning into the tunnel as he jogged toward the clubhouse, grinning all the way.

Kershaw figures to start more Opening Days. He probably will pitch lots and lots of playoff games, and most of them figure to end far more happily than his last playoff outing. But, barring an unusual development, he will never pitch another game on a 160-year-old cricket field more than 8,000 miles from his home. It's something he likely will never forget. It's the kind of thing that adds texture to a great career.

"It was a great crowd. They really love foul balls, I've noticed," Kershaw said. "I guess that doesn't happen in cricket very much."

There were some circus aspects to Saturday night. Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke, who motored the Dodgers offense with a double and a home run, said it seemed as if more fans were drinking beer than at an American game. As Kershaw said, fans cheered more wildly for foul balls than for home runs. The wind swirled so capriciously that some of the best-struck balls got knocked down and one slicing fly ball cleared the fence.

But it was generally orderly, largely because the pitchers looked a lot more ready than the hitters. Arizona's Miley, who learned he'd get the Opening Day start the night before the team was to depart Arizona, held the Dodgers to three hits in five innings. The Dodgers' trio of closers -- Kenley Jansen, Brian Wilson and Chris Perez -- snuffed out any hope the Diamondbacks had of rallying.

But mostly it was Kershaw, dragging his comfort zone across the Pacific.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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