SYDNEY, Australia — For the Dodgers, this was an opening day that didn't feel like an opening day.
They were on the other side of the planet, in a time zone 18 hours ahead of home. The pregame ceremony didn't include fireworks or the customary unfurling of a giant American flag. The game was played at night, in a converted cricket stadium, in front of 38,266 fans who were often loud but clearly more interested in foul balls than home runs.
"It feels more festive," catcher A.J. Ellis said. "It had that exhibition-type feel."
About the only visual reminder that this game at Sydney Cricket Ground counted was in how Clayton Kershaw pitched.
Kershaw went 62/3 innings in the Dodgers' 3-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday night, suddenly transforming from the human batting practice machine he was in spring training to the Cy Young Award winner he was last season.
He remained undefeated in his four career opening-day starts, as Scott Van Slyke provided the necessary offensive backing. Van Slyke doubled in the second inning to set up a run-scoring groundout by Andre Ethier and his two-run home run in the fourth inning was ultimately the difference. Van Slyke started in left field in place of Carl Crawford, who remained in Arizona for the birth of his third child.
There were reasons to be uncertain about Kershaw coming into the game, starting with the fact that he pitched a career-high 259 innings last season. The Dodgers were concerned enough about his workload that they were considering not using him in this series until Zack Greinke strained a calf muscle. Kershaw was knocked around in spring training, posting an earned-run average of 9.20.
"You give a caveat like a win or a loss at the end of the game and you put that on the line, he's a different person," Ellis said. "His competitiveness will play through, his game management skills will play through. He's pitching to win the game and he'll find a way to get it done with whatever stuff he has that night."
Kershaw encountered trouble in the first inning, when he gave up consecutive one-out singles to Aaron Hill and Paul Goldschmidt. But Kershaw forced Martin Prado and Mark Trumbo to ground out and returned to the dugout unscathed.
"It felt good to get out of that inning," Kershaw said. "That first inning of the first game of the year, it feels to get that one under your belt."
Kershaw relied heavily on his slider.
"This team is super aggressive, a good fastball-hitting team," he explained.
By the time Kershaw was charged with a run in the sixth inning, the Dodgers had scored three times.
The stadium was a factor. Almost anything hit in the air was knocked down by the winds.
Van Slyke thought his double was a home run and his home run a foul ball.
When he drove the ball to left field in the second inning, Van Slyke had no doubt where it was headed, so much so that he high-fived first base coach Davey Lopes. Then he looked up.
"The ball was coming in," Van Slyke said.
Van Slyke wasn't the only player confused. Trumbo, the Diamondbacks' new left fielder, scaled the fence, only to see the ball hit low on the wall and bounce back toward the infield.
Van Slyke's double got Adrian Gonzalez to third base, and he scored when Ethier grounded out to second base.
Van Slyke connected with another pitch from Diamondbacks starter Wade Miley in the fourth inning and watched it slice inside the right-field foul pole. The Dodgers were up, 3-0.
"I didn't think that had a chance to go out," Van Slyke said.
Ellis smiled as he recalled the home run.
"Scott found the jet stream," Ellis said.
What the Australian crowd reacted to also made the Dodgers smile.
"They really love foul balls, I noticed," Kershaw said.
Van Slyke understood.
"Souvenirs," Van Slyke said. "People love souvenirs."
There was something else Van Slyke observed.
"I noticed a lot more people here have beers in their hands," he said.
Twitter: @dylanohernandezCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun