Clayton Kershaw's performance Monday ranked among the most memorable Andre Ethier could recall ever witnessing at Dodger Stadium.
"There are no superlatives you can use," catcher A.J. Ellis said.
"Sign him," center fielder Matt Kemp implored.
Against the backdrop of negotiations that could make him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history, Kershaw enjoyed a season opener for the ages, taking center stage on an afternoon when the Dodgers unveiled their $230-million roster and renovated ballpark. In addition to pitching a four-hit shutout, he belted an eighth-inning solo home run that broke a scoreless tie and sent the Dodgers on their way to a 4-0 victory over the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
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After the Dodgers forced an early removal of Giants ace Matt Cain by elevating his pitch count, Kershaw connected with a first-pitch fastball thrown to him by reliever George Kontos and deposited it over the center-field wall for the first home run of his career.
"I had no idea it was going to go out because I've never hit one like that in a game," Kershaw said. "What an awesome feeling."
The Dodgers' dugout exploded. So did the capacity crowd, which rose to its feet. Two pitches into Carl Crawford's at-bat, the fans were still standing and applauding, trying to coax Kershaw out for a curtain call. But Kershaw remained on the bench.
"I had to think about getting three more outs," he said.
After the Dodgers scored three more runs that inning, Kershaw put the final touches on his masterpiece. All-Star Pablo Sandoval grounded out weakly to third base for the final out.
Kershaw threw 94 pitches, making it by far the most efficient of his six shutouts. The fewest pitches he threw in any of his previous shutouts was 111.
"That's the thing when you start facing these pitchers with the dominant stuff: Hitters don't want to get deep into counts," Ellis said.
The National League's strikeout leader in 2011 and runner-up last year, Kershaw struck out seven.
"He's getting a lot of easier, cheaper outs that are giving him the 10- and 11-pitch innings as opposed to the 19- and 20-pitch innings," Ellis said.
Kershaw's low pitch count granted him the opportunity to win the game. He was first batter up in the bottom of the eighth inning with the score still 0-0. Under such circumstances, managers often remove their pitcher for a pinch-hitter.
Not Don Mattingly. Not here.
Kershaw had thrown 85 pitches to that point. His pitch limit had been set at 105 and Mattingly figured he could get at least one more scoreless inning out of his ace. For that, he was willing to sacrifice an out.
The decision had an unexpected offensive benefit, as Kershaw homered for the first time in 335 plate appearances in his career. The only other home run Kershaw had hit as a professional was during spring training on his 21st birthday. Ellis said he would have to find a new way to rib his battery mate and friend, as he was in the habit of telling him every March 19, "It's the anniversary of the only home run of your life."
Crawford followed Kershaw's blast with a double down the left-field line and advanced to third on Mark Ellis' bunt single.
Santiago Casilla replaced Kontos and promptly threw a wild pitch to Kemp, allowing Crawford to score. Kemp walked and Giants Manager Bruce Bochy called on left-hander Jeremy Affeldt to face left-handed-hitting Adrian Gonzalez. Affeldt hit Gonzalez with a pitch, loading the bases. Two groundouts scored two runs, increasing the Dodgers' lead to 4-0.
After the victory, Kershaw's teammates raved about what they had seen.
"To me, he's probably the best pitcher in baseball," Gonzalez said.
He could soon be paid as though he is. Kershaw won't be eligible for free agency until after the 2014 season, but he and the Dodgers were known to be talking about a long-term contract extension in the days leading up to the season opener. Kershaw said multiple times during spring training that he didn't want to negotiate once the season started but wouldn't say Monday if that was still the case. General Manager Ned Colletti and other team officials also refused to comment on the talks.