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Opening Day

Out of the Boo

Baseball: Sheffield's home run goes a long way toward winning over the crowd, and pitching by Park, Fetters and Shaw shuts down Brewers.

April 03, 2001|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gary Sheffield knows how to play to a crowd, and the Dodger left fielder delivered one of his best performances Monday with the audience against him and the show in trouble.

The six-time all-star brought fans to their feet with a solo home run in the sixth inning, providing the difference in a 1-0 opening-day victory over the Milwaukee Brewers before a sellout crowd of 53,154 at Dodger Stadium.

Sheffield's 439-foot leadoff blast to straightaway center against Brewer starter Jamey Wright was enough for starter Chan Ho Park and two relievers.

Park (1-0) seized an opportunity in his first season-opening start, pitching seven scoreless innings and then turning to the league's best bullpen in 2000.

Setup man Mike Fetters struck out the side in the eighth and closer Jeff Shaw worked a perfect ninth to earn the save and preserve the club's first opening-day shutout since Fernando Valenzuela's in 1981.

Pinch-hitter Tony Fernandez grounded out to end the game, igniting a closing ovation after an unsettling first act for the Dodgers and their leading man.

Fans booed Sheffield vociferously from the opening introductions because of his attempt to force a trade after Chairman Bob Daly declined his request for a contract extension in spring training.

But Sheffield took a curtain call after his homer, and fans chanted, "Gary, Gary" after the game.

It might have helped that Sheffield and other Dodgers handed out commemorative towels to fans as they entered the gates at the field level in left field.

The Dodgers and Sheffield had prepared for the worst, but one swing of his bat got fans back on his side, even if only temporarily.

"It made me feel good when we were handing out towels and everybody had kind words," said Sheffield, who had two of the Dodgers' five hits and walked twice. "L.A. is a great town and I enjoy myself here.

"I'm not going to let anything distract me from playing well, I'm just thinking about my teammates. I want to play well regardless [of the situation]."

Said Wright: "As soon as he hit it, I wondered 'Are they going to boo him now?' "

However, Sheffield acknowledged that every bridge cannot be rebuilt in one game, and the Dodgers are not relaxing either.

But Sheffield took a step in the right direction.

"It was a storybook start with Chan Ho pitching like he did and Sheff stepping up," said General Manager Kevin Malone, one of Sheffield's ardent supporters. "Sheff takes it to the next level, and there are not many stars who can elevate their games like that. I know when he was always on the other side against me, he was one player I knew could carry a team.

"He finds a way to get it done, and he was definitely locked in today. Sheff wanted to give the fans something today. He wanted to show them that he wants to be here, he's sorry and he's going to do everything he can to help this team win. He stepped it up. That's the way to start."

Some players were concerned about the fans' animosity toward Sheffield, but the show-stopper quickly allayed their fears.

"To hear the fans boo him like that was not a real good feeling for me, he's my teammate and I don't like to see that happen," Fetters said. "But for him to come out and to do what he did today made me very, very happy. All of us have contract disputes, all of us have our problems with the front office from time to time, it just so happens that he's our franchise guy.

"We expect him to do what he did today, he's a guy we count on to come up with the big hits. Once he hit that home run, made a couple of good plays in the outfield, a couple of good throws, you could feel [the fans' mood change]. To hear them start chanting, 'Gary, Gary' at the end of the game . . . that was nice."

Said Shaw: "With his play, and the way he reacted and went out for the curtain call, my hat is off to him. He played right through it."

Park's performance helped alleviate the pressure.

The right-hander was outstanding in place of No. 1 starter Kevin Brown, on the disabled list because of a right Achilles' tendon injury.

Park gave up five of the Brewers' six hits (Fetters gave up the other) and struck out seven with two walks. He threw 65 strikes in 96 pitches, and that was enough for Manager Jim Tracy with the Dodger bullpen.

Park is coming off a career-high 18 victories and appeared to be in top form in controlling the Brewers, whom he had a personal-best 14 strikeouts against last season at Milwaukee.

"That last Milwaukee game that he threw there [Aug. 29], he just dominated 'em, and essentially there are a lot of the same hitters in that lineup," catcher Chad Kreuter said. "So I said, 'Play that game in your mind, those pitches, the way you attacked those hitters, let's do the same thing today.' "

Mission accomplished, Tracy said.

"He likes to see reruns," said Tracy, making his regular-season debut. "I remember [Kreuter] saying that to him, and that's exactly what he went out there and did."

Tracy was pleased about many things, but the fans' response toward Sheffield made his day.

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