Is Kershaw the best pitcher in the game?
LOS ANGELES -- Opening Day began with arguably the two greatest, most popular sports figures in the history of their adopted city sharing the Dodger Stadium mound for a memorable moment, Sandy Koufax having been summoned from the home dugout to replace Magic Johnson by Dodgers manager Don Mattingly for the ceremonial first pitch.
Koufax, looking as fit in jeans and his white No. 32 jersey as he did in 1966 when he last owned this mound and his sport, bounced a pitch to home plate. Hey, nobody's perfect. He just happened to come significantly closer to perfection than 99.9 percent of the human race.
The day ended, fittingly and perfectly for Dodgers fans among 53,138 on a glorious Monday afternoon, with Clayton Kershaw completing a classic Koufax impersonation -- adding a timely taste of Mike Piazza for good measure.
Kershaw's booming eighth-inning home run against reliever George Kontos, a career first, traveled beyond the center-field wall in Piazza territory, snapping a scoreless duel he'd waged through six innings with Giants ace Matt Cain. A 4-0 victory was sealed when Kershaw retired Pablo Sandoval on a slow roller to third base with his 94th delivery.
In the afterglow, Kershaw was sincerely deferential to Koufax, the Hall of Famer who spent 11 days working with Dodgers pitchers in Arizona this spring in his new role as advisor to the chairman, Mark Walter of Guggenheim Partners.
"I just don't want to disrespect Sandy," Kershaw said in response to a question calling for a comparison. "He doesn't deserve that. He was the best left-handed pitcher ever. To say that is disrespectful to him. Obviously, I'm honored by the comparison. But I don't put any merit into it."
While the Koufax-Kershaw bond is inescapable, there is a more topical issue to consider.
If the Tigers' Justin Verlander is the current undisputed king of the hill, as widely circulated, is this a disservice to Kershaw?
Kershaw and Verlander are off and running. Verlander celebrated his five-year extension that guarantees him $180 million over the next seven years by going five scoreless innings in Monday's 4-2 victory in 34-degree Minnesota.
In conditions more suited to baseball, Kershaw parlayed superb stuff and exceptional command into his sixth career shutout. He yielded four hits without a walk while striking out seven Giants and capped his day with his game-turning blast -- something Verlander can attempt only during Interleague Play.
Adrian Gonzalez has history with both pitchers. The Dodgers' first baseman is 2-for-14 against Verlander with a homer, five walks and three strikeouts. He's 5-for-25 against Kershaw, with four walks, 10 punchouts and zero homers.
So, Verlander or Kershaw?
"Who's got better numbers?" Gonzalez said. "Obviously, they're different in style. Verlander is in the American League; he can stay in games longer and rack up more strikeouts, get more decisions. In the National League, situations sometimes call for [Kershaw] to get pinch-hit for late in games.
"They blend to their leagues. American League pitchers usually go to higher pitch counts. It's a different mentality. One thing that to me is kind of weird is that when you see all these predictions, you don't see Kershaw winning the [NL] Cy Young -- and he's been one, two the last two years. That's part of the whole NL West thing.
"Who's better? Look at the numbers."
Verlander, 30, is 125-65 with a 3.39 ERA in 233 career outings. He entered the season averaging 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9), a strikeouts-to-walks ratio (K/BB) of 3.09 and a 1.17 WHIP.
Kershaw, 25, is 62-37 with a 2.77 ERA in 152 career games, all but two as a starter. He entered the season with a 9.3 K/9, a 2.87 K/BB ratio and a 1.13 WHIP.
Kershaw was the NL Cy Young Award winner in 2011 and ran second in 2012 to the Mets' R.A. Dickey.
Verlander was the 2011 AL Cy Young winner and league MVP. He also was second in last year's Cy Young balloting, to the Rays' David Price.
Kershaw, who is not eligible for free agency until the winter of 2014, figures to draw an extension in Verlander territory. The Dodgers' commitment to winning -- and paying premium talent -- is well established.
Carl Crawford, who doubled and scored after Kershaw's homer, also singled and grounded out sharply in an impressive Dodgers debut marred only by getting thrown out attempting to steal third in the first inning.
Like everyone else in Chavez Ravine, Crawford was amazed by Kershaw's performance.
"Oh, definitely, he's right up there with those top pitchers in the game," said Crawford, who starred behind Price and James Shields for the Rays before moving to the Red Sox in 2011. "Kershaw has that mentality you want in a number one starter. A guy like that gives you confidence that you're going to get a big effort.
"I was on deck when that ball exploded off his bat. The way the wind was blowing, I didn't think anything was going to go out today. He hit that ball hard. He did everything today."
Not since Fernando Valenzuela shut out the Astros in 1981 has a Dodgers Opening Day performance rivaled the one delivered by Kershaw. Fernando was a good hitter, but he didn't go deep in that one.
The only flaw in Kershaw's game might have been his absence of a home-run trot. He glided around the bases. Hitting one out of the park can be an out-of-body experience.
"I didn't know what I was doing," he said. "I really wasn't thinking, or feeling my feet hit the bases."