SURPRISE, Ariz. — After the Dodgers beat the Rays in the World Series, snapping the organization’s 32-year championship drought, star outfielder Cody Bellinger hugged Clayton Kershaw, telling him that “nobody deserves the championship more” than the future Hall of Famer.
Manager Dave Roberts shared that sentiment, making it a point to immediately let everybody know that Kershaw was now a champion after all of those postseason heartbreaks.
It doesn’t quite count yet, but Kershaw took the mound for the first time as a World Series champion on Friday in the Dodgers’ 7-5 win over the Royals. Kershaw looked sharp in his debut, needing just 22 pitches (17 strikes) to get through two scoreless innings.
“It was good to get back out there,” Kershaw said. “Obviously it’s hard in two innings to do everything that you want to, but I did mix in at least one of every pitch I have, so that was good. I have some stuff to build on, for sure.”
Kershaw touched 90 mph during his outing, but most of his fastballs came in at 89 mph. The velocity was a few ticks down, which is normal in the first outing of the spring, but the left-hander picked up right where he left off with the command. He struck out two, both on the slider.
After his outing, Kershaw ran out to the bullpen to simulate a third inning.
“At this point I feel great,” Kershaw said.
While Kershaw said his first Spring Training start felt the same as the previous seasons, the left-hander has admitted on different occasions that he feels a little bit different this season. For starters, he no longer has to carry the burden of unsuccessful postseason runs which, sometimes unfairly, landed on his shoulders.
Kershaw said that his motivation is also different this season. His focus is no longer in trying to get over the hump, it’s now more about trying to capitalize on this championship window the Dodgers are currently in.
Kershaw also seems more relaxed. He’s entering the final year of his contract and the future is a bit uncertain for likely the first time in his career. After his second inning Friday, he waved at his family, who were sitting near the home dugout. In the post-start Zoom with the media, he joked about “maybe having a better personality this year.”
“I think initially, going back to him having kids, that does it to all of us, as far as that softness and different perspective,” Roberts said about Kershaw. “But I do think that winning the World Series, that weight off your shoulders is definitely evident in Clayton in his overall demeanor.”
The plan is for Kershaw to make a couple more starts this spring in order to continue his progression. But with the Dodgers playing their first seven games on the road, it’ll be interesting to see if the club picks him to be the Opening Day starter against the Rockies, or if they opt to line him up with the home opener on April 9 against the Nationals. Roberts said that they haven’t made any decisions in the rotation. Kershaw, on the other hand, will just be ready to pitch whenever asked.
“Opening Day is a special thing, obviously, so whoever gets to do that, is obviously an honor,” Kershaw said. “But the home opener in and of itself this year, is very special. It’s the first time at Dodger Stadium in a year after winning the World Series after 32 years. … I don’t know how the rotation lines up or anything, but Opening Day, home Opening Day, they’re going to be pretty special this year.”
Regardless of when Kershaw makes his first start, the Dodgers expect the left-hander to bring the same competitiveness that has driven him to become, arguably, the best pitcher in the storied history of the franchise. Kershaw might have different motivations and his personality might be showing more, but as Roberts put it, it’ll be “business as usual” for No. 22 this season.
“I think you don’t really realize what you’re carrying while you’re carrying it, you know?” Kershaw said. “I think the burden might be off a little bit for sure, but that doesn’t mean that I’m any less motivated to win this year.”