Exploring the Australia Effect on 2014

One of the great mysteries and nagging worries for the Dodgers all spring has been this: What will playing their first two games 7,500 miles from home do to the rest of their season?

It may not be a logistical nightmare, but it’s certainly a challenge: After playing their final Cactus League game Sunday, the Dodgers catch a midnight charter for Sydney, Australia.

They have a day to adjust to the time zone (16 hours ahead of PDT), a workout Wednesday, an exhibition game Thursday and real games against the Arizona Diamondbacks Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. In between, MLB has lots of sightseeing activities planned.

Following Sunday’s game, they bus to Sydney Kingsford Smith International Airport and fly east for 13 hours. Oddly, they’ll land in Los Angeles Sunday about five hours before they took off in Australia. Then, they have four days off before any game, an exhibition against the Angels, and a week off before North American Opening Day in San Diego.

That layoff, of course, could do more damage than the trip itself. Jet lag is one thing. A stop-and-start season is equally worrisome.

Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was a coach on the 2004 New York Yankees, who opened the season against the Tampa Bay Rays in Japan, then came home and went 9-11 in early games before rallying and making it to the American League Championship Series.

“We came back with four spring training games and that was miserable and we started bad,” Mattingly said. “Those are the things I worry about. The bell rings, those two games count, then you come back and say, ‘Don’t matter.’ I worry about bad habits.”

The Dodgers’ players voted to go, so they have no one to blame but themselves (or their teammates) if it sends them into the season a bit sluggishly. Not everyone voted “yes,” of course, with the most public abstainer being pitcher Zack Greinke, who now won’t have to make the trek after injuring his calf.

History suggests that teams have been able to overcome the rigors of overseas openers, but there has been an early price to pay.

Major League Baseball has opened its season six times outside the continental U.S., but the first two were in Mexico and Puerto Rico, which offer only minimal travel and time-zone adjustments.

The last four were in Japan. One World Series team, the 2000 New York Mets, came out of such a series. Four of the eight teams reached the playoffs and two other teams, the 2004 Yankees and 2008 Boston Red Sox, went to league championship series. In other words, a lot of teams have started on the other side of the Pacific and gone on to great things, but it wasn’t easy.

Mattingly’s Yankees weren’t the only team to start a bit sluggishly after playing in Asia. Every playoff team that started in Japan got off to a losing start: The 2000 Mets started 5-8; the 2008 Red Sox went 5-6; the 2012 Oakland A’s started 4-7.

The only one of the eight teams to start with a winning record was the 2008 A’s, who lost 85 games that year. The 2004 Rays had the worst start: 9-23. There certainly seems to be some sort of lag effect.

A’s general manager Billy Beane doesn’t believe it’s a major concern, telling MLB.com, “We had no issues getting players ready.”

On the other hand, Beane said it did present some challenges. The A’s had to face Felix Hernandez twice in their first four games. The Dodgers could benefit from the weird schedule by using Clayton Kershaw three times in their first six games without asking him to pitch on short rest.

They haven’t decided whether they’ll take advantage of that option, though they did announce Kershaw will pitch the first game in Australia, so it’s open. There’s no reason he wouldn’t also pitch the opener in San Diego, considering he’d be working on seven days’ rest. If he pitches the Dodgers’ home opener, too, on April 4, he’d be working on the customary four days’ rest.

Kershaw told reporters earlier this spring he was preparing himself for the rigors of the off-kilter throwing schedule. He spoke with the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Brandon McCarthy, who pitched in Japan for Oakland.

“He said coming back is the hardest part, to get ready for the season,” Kershaw said. “It’s definitely not an ideal situation travel-wise, but I guess we’ve got to make it work.”

There’s always this to fall back on: If you think the Diamondbacks are the Dodgers’ biggest challenge in the division this year, they’ve got to try to make it work, too.