LOS ANGELES -- Nothing much was going on at Dodger Stadium on Monday night. Just Jackie Robinson Day, with the Robinson Family the guests of honor receiving a special escort from Vin Scully. Just the Yasiel Puig act returning to L.A., the showman crushing a two-run homer and punctuating it with a bat flip. Just Clayton Kershaw’s 2019 debut, shaking off Puig’s first-inning homer to deliver seven strong and welcome innings off the injured list. Oh, and just Cody Bellinger leaving the game injured.
It was like the Coachella of baseball with headliners everywhere, with Joc Pederson’s two-run, walk-off homer giving the Dodgers a dramatic, stunning 4-3 win.
Pederson's game-winning blast came moments after a two-out, two-strike, broken-bat, ninth-inning RBI single by former Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, off his old buddy, closer Kenley Jansen, put the Reds three outs away from a win.
Most important going forward for the Dodgers, Kershaw is healthy after dealing with shoulder inflammation, as the left-handed ace returned with a quality start, tossing seven innings of two-run ball and allowing no runners to reach second base after Puig's home run.
“Everything I had hoped for,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “You saw closer misses with the fastball, the curve was really good, the slider got better as the game went on. He mixed in and out very well. Soft contact. Didn’t make a great pitch with Puig, but outside of that, very, very good for Clayton.”
Kershaw struck out six, including the side in the sixth inning, without a walk and delivered an economical 84 pitches, allowing Roberts to stay with him an inning longer than planned. Kershaw’s slider depth improved as the game went on.
“I’d probably say it was more hit or miss,” Kershaw said. “It wasn’t a steady success. Got better steadily over the game. Kind of sporadic. For me, it was a success overall. Got some swings and misses, some easy outs, what I needed. Curveball was a lot better than in the rehab starts, so, I’ll take it for the first one.”
The radar gun showed a fastball average of 90 mph, but Kershaw commanded it and used it sparingly, like last year, relying on breaking balls for most of his outs, including five of the six whiffs. He joined Hyun-Jin Ryu and Ross Stripling as the only Dodgers starters this year to finish at least seven innings.
“Definitely a good first outing back,” Kershaw said. “I’ll take that, especially the way we ended it. It was a fun night all around, other than that first inning. Definitely helps me remember I can do it. Any time first time out, you just want to make sure you can get hitters out again. 'You can do this, you can succeed. Do it efficiently.' Things to work on, which is good, but overall, a good first step.”
Kershaw said he had the normal pregame butterflies, and if he ever loses that nervous energy, “I shouldn’t be doing it. It was fun to be back, fun to be pitching in games that matter, back at Dodger Stadium, huge crowd for Jackie Robinson Night. Really just thankful to be out there.”
Roberts was impressed that Kershaw shrugged off the homer to Puig and shut down the Reds after that.
“He did, and it’s no surprise,” Roberts said. “Obviously, there was a lot built up in this game, those guys coming back here. For Clayton to kind of reset after the two-run first, really no surprise to us.”
The suddenly erratic Dodgers offense scored in the first inning on a Bellinger ground-rule double. But the early-season National League MVP candidate exited after his right knee was drilled by a 95.5 mph Luis Castillo fastball in the third inning. X-rays were negative, but it's unclear if Bellinger will play Tuesday.
In his first Dodger Stadium game since being traded to the Reds on Dec. 21, Puig was an hour late to his own press conference before the game. But his swing on a Kershaw knee-high 1-2 slider was well timed, the bat flip came with a flourish and he savored his trip around the bases. He was one of five ex-Dodgers in Cincinnati's starting lineup. (Kemp, Jose Peraza, Scott Schebler and Kyle Farmer were the others.)
“He put a great swing on the ball,” Kershaw said. “Unfortunately, seen him do that for a while. Thankful it didn’t beat us and I settled down. Obviously, Puig’s first at-bat back, there’s a lot of emotions on both sides. I’m sure he’s very happy with it, and rightfully so. You don’t want to give up a homer to anybody, but probably a little extra tonight.”
The Dodgers clipped the deficit with Bellinger's RBI double in the first and a game-tying, bases-loaded walk to A.J. Pollock in the fifth. In the ninth, pinch-hitter David Freese drew a leadoff walk against Reds closer Raisel Iglesias, which was immediately followed by Pederson's game-winning home run.