Kershaw's slider his best weapon
April, 2, 2013
By Buster Olney | ESPN.com
LOS ANGELES -- The first time Clayton Kershaw threw a slider with intent to do damage, about four years ago, A.J. Ellis was asked to catch him in the bullpen. Kershaw did what Kershaw always does, which is to develop a plan and carry it out. This is an athlete who has consistently worked through the same conditioning and weight-lifting regimen for years on his own without needing the nudge of a personal trainer.
Before he and Ellis started the bullpen session, he told Ellis how he intended to throw the pitch and where he wanted Ellis to set his target. Kershaw spun the first slider and the movement was explosive, sharp and downward. He tried another and the same thing happened, the ball veering sharply as it got to the plate. Kershaw glanced in at Ellis for confirmation and the catcher nodded back at him, the body language screaming, Yes, those were really, really good.
The reason why Kershaw and the Dodgers decided to add a slider was because they thought he needed another pitch to keep the hitters honest and prevent them from waiting on his fastball. Kershaw had a great curveball and a decent changeup, but hitters had taken to ignoring his off-speed pitches.
So Kershaw needed something different, something at a higher velocity, like a slider -- for Kershaw, this worked for him, immediately. Before Monday's game, Giants first baseman Brandon Belt chatted at his locker about Kershaw and noted that with most pitchers, the hitter can narrow his focus and anticipate one or two pitches in particular spots. "But with Kershaw, you have to worry about four pitches," said Belt, referring to Kershaw's full menu of options.
His breaking pitches were really good in the season opener -- right from the time he threw his first warmups, Ellis said -- and time after time, Giants hitters either watched as he threw strikes with the breaking stuff early in the count or flailed at pitches just out of the zone (see table).
So good was Kershaw that he needed just 71 pitches through the first seven innings, making it an easy decision for manager Don Mattingly to let the left-hander bat to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning. With his pitch count under control, Kershaw was going to pitch the ninth.
But nobody would have ever figured that it would be Kershaw who would give himself the lead. He had no homers in his first 334 plate appearances in the big leagues, and in fact, his last homer in a game had come in a spring training game on his 21st birthday, something that Ellis reminded him of constantly.
When Kershaw leaned into his swing on George Kontos' first pitch, the Dodgers' dugout froze for an instant as the ball zoomed toward center field. And then it turned into pandemonium, with some of Kershaw's teammates shouting about how the home run had gone to the deepest part of the ballpark.
Sandy Koufax had thrown the first pitch of the day, in the energetic pregame ceremonies, and after Clayton Kershaw threw the last, Ellis remarked that the whole day had felt like a passing of a torch, one great Dodgers lefty to another.
But on Tuesday, Kershaw will be at the park early to do his work, as if Monday's historic outing -- he was the first pitcher to hit a home run in the midst of an Opening Day shutout since Bob Lemon in 1953 -- never happened. Four days from now, he'll be back to pacing the clubhouse before a game, slamming a baseball from his left hand into his glove.
For Kershaw, this was a great opening act, Dylan Hernandez writes.
FROM ELIAS: Kershaw was the first starting pitcher to hit a home run in the eighth inning or later of a scoreless game since Sept. 16, 1971, when the Cubs' Juan Pizzarro hit one off Tom Seaver in the eighth inning to give the Cubs a 1-0 triumph at Shea Stadium.
Kershaw joined Don Drysdale as the only pitcher to hit a home run and get the win on Opening Day in the expansion era, which began in 1961. Drysdale did it in 1965 against the Mets.
Kershaw also joined Fernando Valenzuela (1981), Don Sutton (1974) and Koufax (1964) as the only Dodgers to throw complete game shutouts on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium.
The Giants were just faced with too much Kershaw, Henry Schulman writes.
• Felix Hernandez dominated on Opening Day, too. He fuels belief for the Mariners, Larry Stone writes.
Around the league
• The Giants are concerned about Pablo Sandoval's physical condition again, because he is visibly heavier than he was a couple of months ago. Sandoval does all the work that the team asks him to do, but he seems to offset that exercise with his eating habits. The Giants know better than any team just how good of a hitter Sandoval can be -- they will soon be receiving World Series rings partly because of Sandoval's brilliance at the plate last fall -- but they have just about exhausted their options for helping (i.e., motivating) him to keep his weight in check.
Last week, the Giants signed Buster Posey to a record-setting contract that will net him $167 million over the next nine seasons, but they would probably be extremely reluctant to offer Sandoval a multiyear deal, given the unpredictability of his weight issues. As one evaluator noted after watching Sandoval play in recent days, "It's going to be very hard for him to stay healthy and keep from breaking down."
Sandoval had two hits Monday.
• The Rangers now face decisions after locking up Elvis Andrus. It's kind of a no-brainer, actually. Talent evaluators believe that Jurickson Profar is best suited to play second base, and given his age and his potential, it'll make all the sense in the world for the Rangers to establish him at second sometime in the next calendar year.
The next question will be what the future position of Ian Kinsler is going to be, whether first base or the outfield. The Rangers will have options, Rick Gosselin writes.
• For Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg and the rest of the Nationals, it all went according to the script. They gave everyone a taste of things to come, Thomas Boswell writes.
From ESPN Stats and Info: The youngest players with two-plus homers in the team's first game (since 1920).
2013 Bryce Harper (20 years, 167 days)
1969 Don Money (21 years, 305 days)
1991 Sammy Sosa (22 years, 147 days)
1963 Joe Pepitone (22 years, 182 days)
1954 Eddie Mathews (22 years, 182 days)
• The Cubs already have Carlos Marmol on a short leash. Jeff Samardzija was ridiculously good in his first start of the season.
• The Indians are still sorting through some roles with their bullpen.
• Jackie Bradley Jr. had an immediate impact.
Dings and dents
1. Ryan Ludwick suffered a dislocated shoulder. Think six to eight weeks, writes Hal McCoy.
2. Derek Jeter long-tossed Monday, writes Erik Boland.
3. David Ortiz says his heel feels more stable.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Manny Machado is going to bat second, writes Peter Schmuck.
2. Ian Desmond is focused on a championship, not his contract, writes Amanda Comak.
3. Justin Ruggiano is going to be platooned, and he's OK with that, writes Clark Spencer.
4. The Giants have invited Brian Wilson to their ring ceremony.
5. Mike Scioscia showed off his tactical skills.
1. The Mets have a habit of winning openers, writes Andrew Keh.
2. Aaron Hicks had a tough debut.
3. The Red Sox opener went rather well, writes Scott Lauber.
4. The Braves are who we think they are, after one game: Lots of power. Justin Upton homered in his Atlanta debut.
5. Cole Hamels had a bad day.
6. One bad pitch ruined A.J. Burnett's outing.
7. The Brewers got the job done.
8. Chris Sale was the Man for the White Sox.
9. The Astros are looking for a TV solution.