A mere hours before he was scheduled to make his ninth career Opening Day start against the San Francisco Giants, the Los Angeles Dodgers announced that ace Clayton Kershaw was placed on the injured list with back stiffness.
In his place, a 22-year-old rookie, who wasn't even on the active roster when it was announced on Thursday morning, will make the biggest start of his young career.
Dustin May, the Dodgers hard-throwing redhead with the best hair in baseball will become the second youngest pitcher in franchise history to start on Opening Day when he takes the mound on Thursday night. Only Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 was younger than May when he started on Opening Day, but he was also 22-years-old, younger than May by a few months.
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Dodgers' manager Dave Roberts said that Kershaw injured his back on Tuesday in the weight room, but that the team was still optimistic he might be able to make the start. Through treatment and therapy, he recovered, but not enough to get the call in the season opener.
The Dodgers threw the baseball world a curveball with the announcement that Kershaw was injured, but they believe they are being cautious by placing him on the IL, and that the left-hander avoided a serious injury. Roberts added that if backdated, Kershaw should be eligible to come off the IL when the team travels to Arizona for a four-game series beginning on July 30.
Earlier in the week, Kershaw said he was excited to make the start on Opening Day, despite the fact that there would not be fans in attendance.
"I'm still very excited about starting Opening Day, especially because it didn't look very good for a while that we were even going to play," said Kershaw. "It's almost a sigh of relief, really. Our team has a lot of special guys and special talent. It's not going to look the same, it's going to be a lot different than what we expected, but at the end of the day it's still baseball and I'm excited about that."
Kershaw has a history of back injuries. In June of 2016, Kershaw was diagnosed with a mild herniated disc in his back and received an epidural injection. On July 20th of that year, he continued to feel pain in his back and was shut down until Sept. 9.
The following year, Kershaw was placed on the injured list on July 23rd after suffering back tightness, and did not pitch again until Sept. 1. In 2018, Kershaw suffered a lower back strain on May 31st during a start. He rejoined the roster on June 23. In each of those many occurrences, Kershaw was able to finish out the season and pitch deep into the playoffs.
It's unknown if Kershaw's chronic back injuries are related to the injury suffered in the weight room. Since 2016, Kershaw has tried various treatments and preventative exercises during his off days to avoid reoccurrences.
Kershaw not pitching on Opening Day is just one of many things that will look different for the Dodgers when they open the season on Thursday night against the Giants.
Not only is the 7:08PM PT start the latest Opening Day start since a 7:30PM start against the San Diego Padres in 1974, but there will be no fans in attendance for the game against two of the sport's most hated rivals.
"Fans make the game at the field," said Kershaw. "That's what is so much fun about playing here and playing on the road. Fans create that atmosphere."
On Thursday at Dodger Stadium, the "atmosphere" will be artificially created. The Dodgers will pump in crowd noise over the PA system. Advertising banners will be stretched out across the seats in the field and pavilion sections. Instead of fans cheering on the Boys in Blue—hanging on to every pitch with the hope and anticipation that this could be the year the 32-year World Series drought ends—there will be cardboard cutouts of fans smiling awkwardly while wearing their Dodger jerseys. Heck, even dogs will have their own section of cardboard cutouts.
Yes, Major League Baseball will look a lot different this year, and Opening Day for the Dodgers won't have the same excitement—especially among the stadium staff—that it normally does. In the past, during more normal times, players and coaches would awake from their slumber like kids on Christmas. A buzz is in the air. Good luck text messages bombard cellphones, and the energy from the fans as the giant American flag is spread out across the outfield with a flyover above is electric. You can't help but get goose bumps.
"It's going to be very different, obviously," added Kershaw. "Creating that excitement and that buzz is something I've thought about as to how I create that nervous energy that gets you going and that adrenaline. I think facing another team and understanding that the game counts will internally create some of that, but it will not obviously be the same without the fans here.
I think what we all have to understand and keep in mind is how much people are excited and fired up just to watch a live sporting event on TV. That's where I am right now. I'm so thankful there's golf tournaments every weekend just to watch a large sporting event, and I think people are equally excited to do that with baseball. It might not feel that way at the stadium or around here, but for the people watching at home on TV, it will mean something to them, Dodgers fans, it will be a lot of excitement for them and we need to remember that. They want us to win just as bad."
Dodger fans are used to surprises, having their hearts broken, and Kershaw injuries, but despite all of that, they will be over the moon when the iconic words of Vin Scully are uttered just before first pitch on Thursday night:
"It's Time for Dodger Baseball."