No Ohtani? No Problem As Dodgers Drub Padres In Spring Opener

PEORIA, AZ. — Fifteen minutes into the first spring training game of 2024, the Los Angeles Dodgers appeared as absolutely overwhelming as their exorbitant payroll would indicate.

They led the San Diego Padres, 8-0 before even taking the field to play defense. The Dodgers won, 14-1 – and did it without many of their high-priced stars. The team’s “Billionaire Brothers” Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, whose combined contracts total $1.025 billion, stayed back at the Dodgers’ training facility 11.4 miles away in Glendale. So did 2023 all-stars Freddie Freeman, Will Smith, Clayton Kershaw and other veterans.

The crowd of 8,677 at Peoria Stadium did see Mookie Betts score the game’s first run after drawing a walk. It came on a two-run ground-rule double by another pricey signing, Teoscar Hernandez. His one-year $23.5 million deal almost looks like bargain-basement chump change compared to the Dodgers’ big-ticket players.

A bright spot for the Padres was the performance of their own Japanese import. Yuki Matsui in one brief inning showed that his five-year, $28 million contract could be money wisely spent. His first few pitches had a wow factor to them and made it clear he could claim another $10 million in bonuses over the life of the deal should he become the club’s regular closer.

The 28-year-old reliever showed a superb splitter and slider in striking out the side. He got veterans Gavin Lux, Chris Owings and rookie Andy Pages — all on pitches that dipped out of the strike zone. In their previous times up, Lux walked, Owings had a two-run double and Pages a two-run single in the Dodgers’ big first inning.

Matsui’s 94-mph fastball looked much faster, perhaps because it was coming from a 5-foot-8, 165-pound body. He also snaps his head forward upon releasing the ball, adding deception. It all led to an impressive outing that showed why he had 236 saves over the past nine seasons in Japan while allowing a scant 467 hits in 704 innings pitched and an astounding 941 strikeouts.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had nine pitchers work exactly one inning apiece, striking out 12. That’s a manager’s dream for an opening game to be able to give so many guys work at an even pace. The only blemish was Jake Cronenworth’s homer in the bottom of the fourth off lefty Alex Vesia.

Padres pitchers struck out 16. Rookie right-hander Jeremiah Estrada matched Matsui’s perfect 3-K inning and journeyman lefty Austin Davis fanned three minor-leaguers around a double.

San Diego starter Joe Musgrove, whose 2023 season ended in mid-September with a sore throwing shoulder, tossed 24 pitches without getting an out. He gave up a walk, bloop single, hit a batter and Hernandez’s double.

Lux, who missed all of last season with a severe knee injury, looked good running the bases. He was the designated hitter and is expected to be the starting shortstop after moving over from second base, which is now manned by Betts.

“It just felt good to run around and be a baseball player again, especially coming back here where I literally blew it out,” Lux told reporters. “It’s just fun to get some at-bats and feel normal again and do what you grew up doing.”

Lux was hurt last Feb. 27 when he stumbled while running from second base to third in Peoria.

Ohtani Feels Like A Million Bucks

The 29-year-old superstar didn’t say it quite like that but did convey that his rehab from surgery on his prized left elbow is going well. While it is known that he won’t pitch at all this year, he said will not rush things at bat this spring, He is confident he will be fully ready to hit when the Dodgers and Padres open the 2024 season for real with a two-game series March 20-21 in Seoul, South Korea.

“I feel like we’re right on schedule, which is a really good thing,” Ohtani told reporters. “And my body is reacting really well so far. So everything is trending in the right direction.”

The slugger is not expected to play in a spring game for another 10 days.

Yamamoto Sharp In Workout

As entertaining to Dodgers fans as the rout over the division rival Padres, others over at Glendale enjoyed watching batting practice. That’s where Yamamoto, signed to a 12-year, $325 million contract this winter, threw to rave reviews. A crowd gathered to watch him face Ohtani. But the Dodgers’ $700 Million Man took his cuts indoors off a pitching machine.

Yamamoto, expected to make his spring game debut next week, displayed a fine breaking ball and told Juan Toribio of he is excited for the season. “I’ve been feeling good,” Yamamoto said through interpreter Hiro Sonoda. “I’m just pretending this is a real game. Probably the next step will be a real game that I throw.”

Manager Dave Roberts said it is a “safe bet” that Yamamoto starts one of the games in South Korea. “I don’t think that’s official yet,” the right-hander told Toribio, “but if I throw during that series, it would be such an honor.”

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