Reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw hopes to pick up where he left off last season when the Los Angeles Dodgers open their season against the San Diego Padres with the first of four games at Petco Park.
Kershaw was one of the few bright spots in what was one of the more tumultuous years in franchise history for the Dodgers, as the team endured major financial and front office turmoil. But, after an awful first half the team started to put it all together in July and eventually ended the year with a winning record at 82-79.
Kershaw was a big reason for the turnaround.
The 24-year-old left-hander was a Triple Crown winner last season, tying for the league lead with 21 wins, while topping the NL with a 2.28 earned run average and 248 strikeouts. He also became the youngest 20-game winner in the majors since 20-year-old Dwight Gooden in 1985 and the youngest Dodgers 20- game winner since 21-game winner Ralph Branca in 1947.
"I do worry about him putting too much pressure on himself to do more than what he did last year, or even to do that again," manager Don Mattingly said. "That's a lot. Just keep us in the game. You don't have to strike everybody out or go nine innings every time."
Kershaw's wins and ERA were the best for a Dodgers starting pitcher since Orel Hershiser in 1988, and his strikeout total was the best for a Dodger since Koufax's 317 in 1966.
As good as Kershaw was, there may have been a Dodger who was better, as outfielder Matt Kemp nearly pulled off a Triple Crown of his own, despite little or no protection in the middle of the Dodgers lineup. He ended up as a runner-up to NL MVP Ryan Braun and was rewarded this offseason with an eight- year, $160 million extension.
The 27-year-old Kemp hit .324 (third in the NL) with 39 home runs and 126 RBI, leading the NL in home runs, RBI, runs scored (115) and total bases (353).
A 2011 NL All-Star, Kemp also finished among league leaders in multi-hit games (57, tied for first), hits (195, second), slugging percentage (.586, second), extra-base hits (76, second), stolen bases (40, tied for second) and on-base percentage (.399, fourth).
He also became the seventh player in major league history to finish the season ranked in the top three in homers, batting average, RBI and stolen bases in their respective league and the first since Aaron in 1963.
The front office mess should also be behind the Dodgers, as team is in the process of being sold for $2.15 billion to a group involving Magic Johnson.
San Diego, meanwhile, could be in store for a long year.
A year after missing the playoffs with a strong 90-72 record -- the best since reaching the World Series back in 1998 -- San Diego went 71-91 in 2011 and missed the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season. The club also occupied last place in the National League West for the second time in four years and manager Bud Black will be feeling the heat even more if he can't put together what general manager Josh Byrnes brought over to the team.
Byrnes took over for Jed Hoyer after last season and made a few deals that could result in about 80-plus wins this upcoming season. Byrnes dealt fan favorite and short-time staff ace Mat Latos to Cincinnati for starting pitcher Edinson Volquez and prospects pitcher Brad Boxberger, infielder Yonder Alonso and catcher Yasmani Grandal.
"Our young starting pitching depth allowed us to make a move like this," Byrnes said at the time of the deal. "We've added four credentialed young players who can help us win in the short and long term."
Volquez will oppose Kershaw today in his second Opening Day assignment. He was just 5-7 with a 5.71 ERA in 20 starts for the Reds last season, but was a 17-game winner and NL All-Star in 2008.
"I am really looking forward to a really good year," Volquez said. "I think I am ready mentally and physically and that makes me excited to get going and to show what I can do. I think you will see a different pitcher."
Los Angeles won 13 of its 18 games against the Padres a season ago, including six of the nine matchups in San Diego.