SAN DIEGO -- Less than two hours before his first major league start, Kenta Maeda's manager called him “laid back.”
By the end of the night, Maeda looked like one of the most sinister players in Major League Baseball’s opening week thus far.
The Los Angeles Dodgers' latest pitcher from Japan is now must-see TV in his home country, if he wasn’t already. A two-time winner of Japan’s Cy Young Award equivalent, including his latest Sawamura Award last year, it wasn’t just his pitching that made this a debut for the ages.
Maeda not only won his first game with six scoreless innings, his fourth-inning home run was the Dodgers’ first long ball this season. Talk about ruthless.
The Dodgers won the game 7-0 and outscored the Padres 25-0 in the series. Despite all of the runs, it was Maeda who showed the way over the wall, as well as from the mound.
That it all played out on live television in Japan, with a 10 a.m. first pitch on Thursday, made it even sweeter.
“I was a little bit nervous at first, but my teammates scored for runs for me [in the first inning] so that really relaxed me a lot,” Maeda said through an interpreter. “I was able to get on the mound the way I usually do and pitched the way I usually do.”
The subplot was that the Dodgers ultimately were able to start the season with three consecutive shutouts of the Padres. Dodgers pitching gave up just 11 hits in 27 innings of the opening series, with Dodgers starting pitchers giving up seven hits over 19 innings.
Staff ace Clayton Kershaw gave up just one hit over seven scoreless innings of Monday’s opener. Scott Kazmir then allowed one hit over six innings Tuesday of his National League debut. Maeda, who had pitched professionally for only Hiroshima of Japan’s Central League before Wednesday, then had a debut to savor.
“I was aware that there were no runs allowed in the first two games and [Kershaw and Kazmir] both won so I was definitely feeding off that momentum,” Maeda said. “At the same time, knowing that there were no runs scored, there was pressure for me too.”
Maeda let go of that pressure somewhat in his exuberance following some key outs. One moment came when he slapped his glove after covering first base to record the last out of the top of the fourth inning, leaving runners stranded on second and third.
He slammed his glove again to end the top of sixth inning after striking out Yangervis Solarte. It was one batter after umpires upheld an out call on a bang-bang play at the plate that nearly gave the Padres their first run of the season.
“All of his off-speed pitches had their moments, and we picked the times when to throw the off-speed to the right hitter based off the game plan,” catcher A.J. Ellis said. “Kenta had done his homework and had a pretty good idea of these hitters once we walked into our pregame meeting. We were on the same page, and then he went out there and executed it.”
Even pitchers who have delivered memorable moments in a Dodgers uniform were impressed. Orel Hershiser, who put together a record 59-inning scoreless streak in 1988, setting the record in San Diego, called the game as a member of the Dodgers’ broadcast team.
“It was so much fun, especially inside of the success the team has had here in the first three games,” Hershiser said. “He’s as advertised, the pitchability, the ability to change speeds, to add and subtract on his slider, even on his fastball. He really understands the game. It’s a tribute to his athleticism.”
It wasn’t all pitch-perfect, though. It never is. Maeda did have a throwing error after fielding a bunt, and he was a bit confused at the American tradition of giving a player the silent treatment following his first home run. When Maeda reached the dugout after his long ball, nobody approached him immediately, so he spread his arms wide and waited for the embrace to come to him.
“Usually a rookie will come in and see what is going on, sit on the bench and we’ll mob him.” said Ellis, admitting the silent treatment didn’t translate so well. “He had both arms open as if to say, ‘Where are you guys? What’s going on here?’ He wasn’t buying that was the American tradition for celebrating a home run. We just wanted to have a little fun in that moment and he was a great sport about it.”
Before that silent treatment, the most excited Dodgers player of all might have been Kershaw, who looked like a kid at Christmas when Maeda was rounding the bases following the home run.
“I was obviously surprised he hit a homer, but watching him hit in batting practice in spring training, we knew he has the ability to do it, you just don’t expect it,” Kershaw said. “I’ve been playing for eight years, I have one homer, so that was pretty impressive. We’re supposed to pitch well, but when we do that, that’s Little League stuff. That’s awesome.”
Roberts already owes Maeda a steak dinner, as a payoff to a deal after he gave up a home run to his pitcher in batting practice during spring training. Wednesday’s home run won’t necessarily get Maeda a second dinner, but could get him an upgrade.
“We’re going to go with a tomahawk steak, I don’t think he’s seen anything like that,” Roberts said. “He’s seen the Kobe beef, but we’re going to go big. It was fun to see the guys react to Kenta after the homer and they gave him a big team hug. He enjoyed the moment, but when he took the mound he refocused and got outs.”