Have you ever had those moments where you’ve stopped and realized just how long a week felt? Particularly when it was an up-and-down, eventful seven days? Without a doubt, the past week marked an opening stretch for Dodger fans that was as exhausting emotionally as it was exhaustive in demonstrating everything that will either define a triumphant year or a high-priced flop in 2014.
First things first, the opening series in San Diego. After Brian Wilson and his Khal Drogo beard wasted Hyun Jin Ryu’s brilliant start in game one, Zack Greinke and Dan Haren won the next two games with sufficient, if not exceptional, help from the offense and bullpen. But the victories were offset by far greater losses, as both Clayton Kershaw and Wilson were sent to the 15-day DL (thus explaining the latter’s seemingly inexplicable meltdown in game one). Before panic mode could set in, however, both injuries were revealed to be far from season-ending material, with Wilson’s coming from nerve damage (a relief considering he’s had two Tommy John surgeries) and Kershaw’s more in the realm of back pain without any serious tears. Being without both players’ talents and exceptional personalities on the field is an undeniable setback, but when you’ve officially exceeded the Yankees in payroll, there’s no excuse to not hold first place in time for their return.
After the widely scorned sojourn to Australia and the official stateside MLB opener in San Diego, LA then managed to have a completely non-gimmick Dodger Stadium opener on Friday. Unfortunately, the 52nd year of Chavez Ravine baseball was christened with embarrassment on and off the field.
First was Yasiel Puig’s late arrival for his first opening day (if a reminder is needed, he made his MLB debut last June), for which he was rightly benched by Don Mattingly. At this point, I’m utterly sick of the way Puig’s episodes bring the team’s publicity to a standstill over and over again, and thus won’t go into detail about it here. It certainly wasn’t alleviated by dropping the first two games to the immeasurably loathed San Francisco Giants, who lit up Ryu and insurance starter Paul Maholm with nonchalant ease. Worse was the fact that the LA offense managed to stage rallies even after falling so far behind, but proceeded to rediscover the runners in scoring position impotence of late 2012/early 2013. I certainly caught a (painfully justified) volley of mockery from my SF-allied friends for all of it.
But these losses, as well as the far smaller one in San Diego, carried a sting for some (or at least for me) that went far beyond the transient disappointment of a regular season loss. I’m no stranger to overreacting to inconsequential defeats, but these games still triggered worries of what a disappointing season or playoff shortcoming could look like. But unlike the absurdity of this behavior coming from, say, Yankees fans, who rarely go half a decade without a fresh championship, it’s painfully justified from expectant LA devotees. As triumphant Giant fans are all too quick to remind us, Dem Bums have neither played in nor won a World Series since the dream season of Kirk Gibson, Orel Hershiser et. al in 1988. Without delving into the uncensored history of torture that’s prevailed since then (I’ll save that for another column when I can fully stomach it), let’s just say you can’t blame one for expecting the worst no matter how solid the team truly is. (Interesting how some of the most excruciating droughts in baseball history stretch or have stretched back to years ending in 8. 1908 for the Cubs, 1918 for the Red Sox, 1948 for the Indians, 1988 for the Dodgers…)
Luckily, the Dodgers salvaged the third game and ended the week in a manner that was simply impeccable. April 6th’s 6-2 victory not only capped off week one with the Dodgers at 5-3, but it served as the most “complete” win thus far. After the pastings of Ryu and Maholm, Zack Greinke delivered one of his trademark consummate starts. Aside from six innings, eight strikeouts and only two runs allowed, he notched a ground rule double and helped subdue the Giants’ surprisingly powerful lineup with his defense as well. But what truly made the win complete was the sudden return of 2011-form Matt Kemp, who shook off some of his rust with two graceful home runs off Matt Cain. While I don’t think his injury last year was a make-or-break factor in falling short of the World Series (especially given Hanley Ramirez’s production, exemplified by two homers of his own on Sunday), only a bona fide fool would deny his complete package of talent was sorely missed. And before I get carried away with my Kemp man-crush, I have to sing high praises for the bullpen. I picked them to be the best in all of MLB this season, and even without Wilson for a spell they’ve exceeded those lofty expectations thus far.
I realize it seems a little silly to either freak out or take great comfort in the state of a team after only eight games in a 162-game season. But when your price tag is officially higher than the Yankees and you haven’t tasted the World Series since quoting “Rain Man” was new, every little action is going to be intensely evaluated whether or not it should be. Such is the equally exhilarating and excruciating saga of the Dodgers and their fans. Here’s hoping the rest of the season and October will look a hell of a lot more like this past Sunday, with the Matt Kemp of old and the Hanley Ramirez of new slugging each step of the way.
Until next time,
Author’s note: I finished and submitted this piece on April 8th, in the immediate aftermath of Carl Crawford’s walk-off against Detroit, but want to keep it limited to the first week of the season. And if it seems rushed or whatnot in anyway, it comes on the heels of an eventful weekend promoting my Presidents Baseball franchise and then the second week of my last quarter at UC Davis. But rest assured, I will write as consistently as possible to capture such a huge season.