Josh Lindblom is story on first day
Reliever is pressed into duty after Kershaw's illness and steadies Dodgers to win
SAN DIEGO -- Forty-eight hours earlier, Josh Lindblom had simply hoped he would be at Petco Park on Thursday. He never dreamed, never even fantasized, that he would end up where he was at the start of the bottom of the fourth inning.
Clayton Kershaw never thought he would be where he was at that juncture of the Los Angeles Dodgers' season opener, either. But there he was, lying flat on his back on the dirty floor of a tunnel between the visiting dugout and clubhouse, beset by varying degrees of nausea, chills and fever, three valiant and scoreless innings behind him but nothing ahead of him except the comfort of a table in the trainers' room, if only he could manage to get up and walk that far.
"It's not good sign when you see your starting pitcher laying down," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly would say later.
By the end of the afternoon, there would be a season-opening win for the Los Angeles Dodgers, 5-3 over the San Diego Padres before a sellout crowd of 42,941, but there would be no season-opening win for Kershaw, the dominating lefty who compiled 21 of them last year en route to the National League Cy Young Award. That honor would fall to Lindblom, the second-year right-hander who says he hadn't even done enough of his own analysis to figure out what many close followers of the Dodgers deduced long before Lindblom was told, which was that he would make the Opening Day roster.
When it became obvious to everyone Kershaw couldn't go any further, it was Lindblom who got the call to loosen up as quickly as he could. Aided by a long top of the fourth, when the Dodgers worked Padres starter Edinson Volquez for four walks, two of them with the bases loaded, to grab a 2-0 lead, Lindblom got plenty loosened up, and then he came on to pitch two perfect innings against an overmatched-looking Padres lineup.
In the grand scheme of baseball's interminable season, Opening Day is a blip. Six months from now, this game will be all but forgotten. But to Lindblom, it may never be forgotten.
"This has been an awesome 48 hours," he said. "I have to thank God for the opportunity He provided for me. I never imagined I would come in for the fourth inning on Opening Day and get a win in my first Opening Day. It was an awesome experience all the way through. This is a great bunch of guys, and I'm just happy to be a part of this team."
He almost wasn't, of course. Or at least in his mind, he almost wasn't. And in one of those sad twists that baseball almost always seems to present, he might not be for very long.
In the waning days of spring training, Mattingly kept insisting to the media that non-roster lefty Scott Rice still was in contention for that final bullpen spot, a spot that wouldn't have existed if not for the fact that starter Ted Lilly would open the season on the disabled list to try to make up for the time he missed this spring because of neck stiffness. But anyone with any familiarity with the way these things usually work could have figured out Lindblom was going to be the guy. He had a 40-man roster spot. Rice didn't. And the Dodgers didn't have one to spare.
Lindblom didn't really examine the situation that closely.
"There are situations all the time where they're going to take the best arms that give them the best chance to win," he said. "The most important thing is for us to put the best team we can out on the field."
And so, when Lindblom was summoned to Mattingly's office late Tuesday night, where both Mattingly and general manager Ned Colletti waited to speak with him behind closed doors, he didn't know what to expect. On his way, he texted his wife, Aurielle.
"I just told her, 'Pray, [because] I'm going in," he said.
The conversation, as best Lindblom could recall two days later, went something like this:
"They said, 'We have sat here before,' and I said, 'Yeah, I hope this is better than the last time we sat down.' And then Ned laughed and said, 'It's good news. You're on the team.'"
And then, Lindblom had a little fun with his wife.
"Two seconds later, I texted her again and said, 'Pray harder.' And then I texted her again, and it was just a dot-dot-dot."
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He may have thought about keeping her in suspense, about waiting until he got back to the hotel to tell her the good news, but Lindblom ultimately decided he owed it to Aurielle. After all, she was the one who would have to make all the arrangements, to get the car to either Los Angeles or Albuquerque -- he already had bought her a plane ticket back to Phoenix to pick it up -- while he went wherever it was he was going.
"Really, [not knowing] is easier for me because I'm going to be on a flight," Lindblom said. "The tough part is for your family and your wife."
The even tougher part for guys who are at the stage of their careers that Lindblom finds himself, less than four years after the Dodgers drafted him in the second round out of Purdue University and less than a year after he made his big league debut, is that even making the team can be a temporary thing. Lilly is coming back next week, and Lindblom has minor league options.
For now, though, Lindblom is here and determined to make the most of it. And on a day when Kershaw's inability to continue could have put the Dodgers' bullpen in a shambles right out of the chute, they were able to make the most of Lindblom's presence, as well.
"That was huge," Mattingly said. "Two solid innings. You never want to have to get into your bullpen that early, but it was just one of those things, and he was able to get us where we needed to get."
Kershaw's dogged ability to get as far as he got helped, too. Although long reliever Jamey Wright was told just before game time to start getting loose in case Kershaw couldn't go, the combination of Kershaw for three and Lindblom for two allowed Mattingly to stay away from Wright and ensure that the bullpen really wasn't taxed at all by Kershaw's early exit. Wright wasn't used and will be at the ready Friday night if needed.
There is a long season ahead for the Dodgers, 161 games to go and possibly, they hope, more. There will be plenty of heroes, plenty of goats, plenty of hot streaks, slumps and in-betweens. And there will be storylines, many, many storylines.
One game in, though, one of those storylines was Lindblom. And the Dodgers, who for the fourth time in the past five years have begun a season with a 1-0 record, were better for it.