SAN FRANCISCO — As the next generation of Los Angeles Dodgers are being added to the fold here in the Bay Area this week, the old guard keeps showing why he remains the team’s most popular player of all.
In left field for the Dodgers was Cody Bellinger, the team’s top hitting prospect, who was added to give a boost to a lackluster offense. Already in town is left-hander Julio Urias, whose 2017 debut was delayed as the Dodgers control his innings, but who is ultimately slated to be the yang to Kershaw’s yin. He will make his first start of the season Thursday.
As the Dodgers work on something of a youth movement, a personnel tweak highlighted this week with the addition of a 21-year-old position player and a 20-year-old pitcher, it is the veteran Kershaw leading the way and setting examples to follow.
“Impressive, especially after the first batter of the game hits him in the calf [with a comebacker],” third baseman Justin Turner said. “Obviously that probably didn’t feel great. I’ve had that before and it sucks. For him to go seven innings and throw the way he did with a banged-up calf is just added to his legacy, added to his ridiculousness.”
The injury happened when Hunter Pence hit Kershaw’s second pitch of the game back up the middle. Kershaw sacrificed his body for the play, first blocking the ball with his leg, then retrieving the ball to make the play at first base.
He appeared fine until trying to break out of the batter’s box on a ground ball in the third inning. After his first step he pulled up his right leg as if stepping on glass at the beach.
“It just kind of grabbed,” Kershaw said. “It was my right leg, so it’s not my push-off leg pitching, so pitching was fine. Just when I tried to move fast … for me, I just pushed off and I felt it. It didn’t feel great, but I’m not worried about it.”
Kershaw is in a Dodgers uniform, of course, to light the ignition on victories, something he is more than adept at doing. But it is the way he goes about his business that also is a boon to the team.
Extremely locked in on days he pitches, and very locked in on the days he doesn’t, Kershaw sets the tone for the next generation of Dodgers just by being himself.
So when a Buster Posey ground ball in the third inning got just under the glove of a diving Corey Seager for the first run of Tuesday’s game, Kershaw bounced off the mound, slammed his left fist into his glove and screamed into the leather three times in succession.
It was a half-inning after he nearly pulled up lame on the basepaths, but he was nowhere near about to give in. Two early miscues on defense by second baseman Chris Taylor — one on a missed tag and another when he was slow to react to a ground ball — had helped the Giants’ cause.
Kershaw, though, was not giving into anything happening around him either physically or with breakdowns on defense. He was determined to get after it.
“I don’t want to be too over the top, but obviously the compete, the will, it was a courageous effort, it really was,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He refused to come out of the game. There were things out of his control defensively, but for him to keep his focus and to continue to compete, get guys out and give us length, go seven innings, I can’t say enough about that effort. We needed it tonight.”
Bellinger took it all in from left field. He knows all about Kershaw’s success, sharing a locker room with him the past two springs, but Tuesday was his night to find out what one of the best pitchers in baseball was all about.
“It’s spectacular,” Bellinger said. “He’s the best in the game right now, there’s no doubt. I kind of got to witness it first-hand. It’s really impressive and I was just doing what I could to play defense and help him win.”
It was just one game together, but Bellinger was ready to start learning from Kershaw’s competitive nature immediately.
“You can just tell the guys who have been here for a while and are going to be here for a while,” Bellinger said. “I guess it’s everyone in here. There is a full veteran presence and just great guys that are making you feel comfortable.”
In Kershaw’s case, it was making everybody feel comfortable except the opponent. He retired 13 of his last 15 batters, including 10 consecutive at one stretch. He was actually getting better as the game went on, with a run of success that started after his fit of anger on the mound.
“I don’t think you have another gear until you get to the point you need it, you know what I mean?” Kershaw said. “Nothing really physically or mentally changes, it just happens that you have to have your good stuff. It’s frustrating when you think you get a ground ball to get out of it and it just finds a hole. That’s frustrating. Fortunate to keep it to one there and it kept us in the game.”
And as Turner said, it added another bit to Kershaw’s legend.
“I think he’s pretty nasty whether he’s screaming or yelling or just going about his business,” Turner said. “But yeah, he demands perfection out of himself and he wants to win and he’s a competitor. I know the last guy in the world he wants to give up an RBI hit to is Posey, so that’s probably frustrating. He wasn’t too happy about a fly ball (from Giants pitcher Ty Blach) getting down.
“He’s just a whole other animal. That’s the way he is. He’s just a competitor and wants to win more than anyone every time he’s on the mound.”
And if that doesn’t set the best example for the next generation, then nothing will.