He trudged off the mound nearly six innings later as something else entirely.
Scuffling Clayton Kershaw. Gassed Clayton Kershaw. Mortal Clayton Kershaw.
Is this going to be the 2021 Clayton Kershaw?
A guy who doesn’t miss many bats. A guy who doesn’t throw as hard as in last season’s revival. A guy who can no longer stare down a weaker team and dominate.
When asked what he thought of his performance on a videoconference, Kershaw grimaced.
“It wasn’t great,” he said.
He was being kind.
He followed up his clunker of a 10.44 ERA spring with a lemon of a season debut. Across 5 2/3 innings he gave up five earned runs and 10 hits with just two strikeouts.
Of 77 pitches he threw, batters swung and missed at only five of them. Shortly before he was lifted in the sixth, he gave up three consecutive singles on three first pitches, hitters impatiently pouncing.
It was only the eighth time in 395 career appearances he has yielded double-digit hits. It was the first time it has happened in an event he has owned with such annual regularity, it’s become known around Chavez Ravine as Kershaw Day.
No matter how much he’s struggled in spring training, no matter how many injuries he’s battled in the offseason, Kershaw has always brought his best on opening day, his Dodgers-record eight previous opening starts resulting in a 5-1 record and 1.05 ERA.
Not this time. Not even close.
On the eighth anniversary of one of his greatest opening day starts — remember when he homered and threw a shutout in a 4-0 victory over the San Francisco Giants? — that day seemed so long ago.
One could blame the altitude of Coors Field, but nine of his allowed hits were singles. The setting is not conducive to breaking pitches, but even manager Dave Roberts noted that his slider went nowhere. The Dodgers played lousy behind him, and a dumb rule cost him a run, but he also made a mental error while fielding a bunt.
He wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t last season’s Championship Kershaw, nor history’s Opening Day Kershaw, and at age 33 and in his 13th season, it’s not the best of omens.
The 2020 championship wonderfully removed his heaviest burden, but as the Dodgers attempt to become the first team in two decades to repeat, at least a chunk of their season is back on his shoulders.
They no longer need him to be their ace — that job belongs to Walker Buehler — but they do need him to reprise last year’s role as their consistent cornerstone. Trevor Bauer is still adjusting to his new surroundings. Julio Urías and Dustin May are still kids. Kershaw is the pitcher tasked with keeping them in games like this one that go a little haywire, as the score was tied 4-4 when he took the mound in the sixth.
Six batters and four singles later they trailed 6-4 and Roberts was coming to get him.
“I thought that without having his slider today, his slider wasn’t really sharp, he still gave us a chance to win a baseball game,” said Roberts, also being kind. “There were some pitches he’d like to have back. There were some balls that found some holes.”
One can usually judge Kershaw’s opinion of his performance by the length of his postgame answers. On Thursday, one could count the syllables.
What did you not like about the outing?
“Just the runs being scored.”
Anything specific you thought didn’t go your way?
He did acknowledge that, before that fateful sixth inning, he might have been winded from running the bases and scoring a run in the top of the inning. Remember, because of last season’s universal designated hitter, this was the first time he’s been on any base in more than a year.
“I don’t get on base that much, but it will take a little bit of getting used to for sure, getting back out there,” he said.
It says here that Roberts might have noticed any decreased stamina, ignored his low pitch count, and pulled him after he gave up consecutive singles to start the inning. But then again, it was opening day and he is Clayton Kershaw.
“Honestly, we just didn’t play a good baseball game,” said Roberts. “All the way around, we didn’t play well.”
This shaky performance also involved Kershaw’s fielding, when the Dodgers gave up two runs in the third inning with two uncharacteristic plays. First, Mookie Betts lost a Chris Owings fly ball in right field that fell for a triple. Then, after Owings scored on Garrett Hampson’s bunt, Kershaw gave up a chance at an easy double play by catching German Marquez’ bunt popup instead of dropping it and throwing to second. From second, Hampson scored on a single by Josh Fuentes.
“You know, with baseball, it’s a long season, there’s going to be games like this where the rhythm just isn’t clean,” Roberts said.
Nothing was messier than the weirdness that started it all, Cody Bellinger’s third-inning drive over the left-field fence that was ruled . . . a single?
With one out in the scoreless third and Justin Turner on first, Bellinger lofted an opposite-field fly ball that Raimel Tapia seemed to grab as he leaped. But the ball popped out of his glove and fell over the fence for a home run.
Except it wasn’t a home run, because Turner thought the ball had been caught, so he turned and ran back toward first, and was passed on the basepaths by Bellinger. Bellinger was ruled out, the home run was downgraded to a single, Turner was allowed to score, and are they being serious?
That’s one of the dumbest rules ever. Once the ball leaves the park, shouldn’t the batter be able to trot the home run as he pleases, even if it means passing runners or bumping runners or even stopping to dance with runners? Why not? The ball is gone. The play is dead.
Certain other baserunning rules don’t apply to home runs, as players can slap hands with base coaches and embrace teammates while running down the third base line. Why is passing a teammate any different? How can a legitimate home run not be a home run because of something that happened after it was a home run? Makes no sense.
“It was just one of those funky plays that I don’t think will happen again this year,” Roberts said.
The Dodgers are surely hoping the same can be said of the funky afternoon of their starting pitcher, who must now ramp up to become Rest of the Season Clayton Kershaw.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.