Kenta Maeda gets his first Giants-Dodgers rivalry test

LOS ANGELES -- Kenta Maeda has made it through the longest spring training he has ever spent in a single location, authored a smashing debut that included a home run, and received the honor of pitching in the Los Angeles Dodgers' home opener.

He has gone through the ritualistic silent treatment that comes to a player for his first long ball, won a steak from his manager for his hitting prowess this spring and has compared pitching notes with teammate and staff ace Clayton Kershaw.

What the Dodgers’ newest Japanese import has not done yet is pitch against the team’s hated rival, the San Francisco Giants.

In many ways, Maeda’s arrival into Dodgers culture will be cemented when he takes the mound Sunday night.

In fact, both pitchers in Sunday’s game on ESPN (8 p.m. ET) will be introduced into the rivalry together, as Jeff Samardzija takes the ball for the Giants.

But Samardzija already knows heated rivalries. He pitched for the Chicago Cubs against the St. Louis Cardinals. He pitched for the Chicago White Sox against those same Cubs, and as a wide receiver at Notre Dame, he went facemask-to-facemask with Michigan and USC.

Maeda might have an accomplished pitching track record in Japan, but he admits he hasn’t quite experienced a headbutting of squads with an utter disdain for each other, one born out of history, past success and mere geographical proximity.

After four days of observing the Dodgers and Giants go at it last week in the Bay Area, Maeda had one simple takeaway: “In Japan there is not that much of an intensity between two teams,” the eight-year Hiroshima player said through his interpreter, Will Ireton.

If the past two months are any indication, Maeda will handle the Dodgers-Giants intensity just fine. It’s not to say he will cut through the Giants just as he did the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks already, only that he will manage to not get lost in this moment either.

Maeda has been one of most low-maintenance Dodgers players. He has willingly accepted the Dodgers’ physical conditioning schedule, delivered without fail going back to his first start in spring training, and remained healthy when Dodgers players were dropping in camp all around him.

The twist is that Maeda was the one who had the abnormalities in his physical exam this winter, irregularities that forced his eight-year deal with the club to have just $25 million guaranteed but could grow to as much as $106 million if a number of incentives are met. He was not one of the 10 Dodgers players to start the season on the disabled list.

It was Maeda that was determined to get a deal done and follow in the footsteps of Dodgers pitchers from Japan before him, like Hideo Nomo, Kazuhisa Ishii, Hiroki Kuroda and Takashi Saito. By all accounts, the right-hander’s work ethic is top notch, but manager Dave Roberts has said that there is an added element in all of this in that the Dodgers are the team Maeda wanted to go to above all others.

“I think that Kenta is really a bright guy," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said about his No. 3 starter, "and he continues to gather information.”

A good sign for Roberts came in Tuesday's start against the Diamondbacks, when Maeda took charge mid-outing, shaking off catcher A.J. Ellis on certain pitches. He has proven to be a quick study, even with hitting tendencies of opposing players he has never competed against before this spring.

“He makes it look good, he definitely does, and his athleticism plays into that,” Ellis said. “He has a tremendous feel. He makes pitches do different things. No two sliders are the same, no two curveballs are the same. He knows how to change speeds with tremendous feel and athleticism on the mound. His ability to mix and match and change speeds will help him get out of tight situations and allow him to be creative when facing opponents.”

If Maeda can stay healthy, the Dodges have a gem on their hands, one they will pay for a la carte, like at a restaurant essentially, just at far more exorbitant prices. Want 15 or 20 starts? One million for both. Want 25, 30 or 32 starts? That's $1.5 million each. Innings-pitched totals could escalate from $250,000 for 90 innings all the way up to $3.5 million if he reaches 200.

Listening to Ellis talk, all of those financial carrots dangling in front of Maeda will likely be gobbled up along the way.

“I think the consistency he showed, from the first outing in spring training, this is the guy who he is,” Ellis said. “He came in ready to go, ready to pitch, and when you have the ability to be creative as he is and have the feel that he has, he can get away with one day when his slider is not as good or his curveball is not as good because the other pitches will pick up the slack on those days.

“Having that ability is what’s going to help him manage those days where he’s not feeling as sharp as maybe he was on another day.”

Maeda still has not given up a run over 12 innings, but Sunday figures to be his biggest test so far, although facing a Diamondbacks lineup with Paul Goldschmidt is no simple task. The Giants bring a deep lineup, the determination of rivals, and then there is that national television audience to consider.

Bring it on, Maeda says.

“I definitely felt the intensity being at AT&T Park,” Maeda said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing them here in front of the Dodgers’ fans.”

Maeda was the only Dodgers starter that did not take the mound in that earlier series in San Francisco, but he was taking notes.

“The thing I want to focus on is being able to pitch well,” he said. “I’m not fully aware of the rivalry and the history of Dodgers and the Giants. I am really just looking forward to pitching against them in front of this crowd.”