Clayton Kershaw to start opener

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Left-hander Clayton Kershaw will get the ball for the Los Angeles Dodgers' season opener on March 31 against the San Francisco Giants, manager Don Mattingly announced on Wednesday morning.

Mattingly said he made the decision as far back as last fall.

"Probably the day after I found out I was going to manage," Mattingly said. "This kid loves the challenge, and I would line him up against anybody."

In this case, Mattingly likely will be lining up Kershaw against right-hander Tim Lincecum, the Giants' ace right-hander and two-time reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. Mattingly cited Kershaw's two victories last season over Colorado Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez, the NL starter in the All-Star Game, as evidence of his ability to rise to the occasion.

Kershaw said he hadn't received official word of the assignment from Mattingly, but that the two had discussed the possibility in the waning weeks of last season after it was announced that Mattingly, then the Dodgers hitting coach, would be taking over as manager after the season.

"He just asked me if I thought I would be ready for it," Kershaw said. "There hasn't been any official word, but we have talked about it, so I'm not surprised. It's exciting, and it's great to know I have a date to prepare for and that I'm going to get Lincecum. ... It's definitely a sign of acknowledgement and recognition from your manager that he feels you are worthy of that title."

Kershaw, the Dodgers' first-round draft choice in 2006, is entering his fourth major league season. Last year, he was 13-10 with a 2.91 ERA and gave up just 160 hits in a career-high 204 1/3 innings. He also struck out 212 batters and walked just 81.

"He is getting better and better," Mattingly said. "He seems to bounce back well after starts when he struggles. I like the way he handles himself, and he's a good worker."

Mattingly stopped short of calling Kershaw the ace of his rotation, saying he likes all of his starters, a group that also includes Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda and Jon Garland.

Kershaw himself pointed out that for all the hoopla surrounding Opening Day, it still is just one of 162 games on the schedule.

"Really, all that's different is that it's the first game of the season," he said. "Once all the festivities are over, it's just one game, so hopefully it'll be easy to just focus on the game and get ready to go."

This will be Kershaw's first career Opening Day assignment. Last year's Opening Day starter, Vicente Padilla, is expected to begin the season in the bullpen. Kuroda drew the assignment two years ago.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.