For hours, the cheers and boos and attention were fixated on Yasiel Puig at Dodger Stadium on Monday night. He commanded the spotlight in his first game in Los Angeles as a foe. He savored and excelled on the stage. He relished his new role as the adversary.
But a towering blast off Joc Pederson's bat in the ninth inning nudged Puig's return into background and salvaged the Dodgers in a walk-off, 4-3 victory. With the Dodgers down a run, Pederson swatted a hanging slider from Cincinnati's Raisel Iglesias over the wall in right-center for a game-winning, two-run home run. He looked back at the Dodgers' dugout, pointed at his team and pounded his chest three times when he connected before beginning his trot around the bases.
"I got it pretty good," Pederson said.
When it landed, the Dodgers (10-8) erased a deficit created moments earlier when Matt Kemp, one of the three other Dodgers traded to Cincinnati in December, poked a 94-mph cutter off Kenley Jansen the other way for an RBI single to give the Reds (5-10) the lead in the top of the ninth.
Pederson's seventh home run — and the first walk-off homer of his career — ensured the Dodgers wouldn't waste Clayton Kershaw's impressive season debut. In his first start for the Dodgers since Game 5 of the World Series last fall, Kershaw limited the Reds to two runs on five hits over seven innings. He struck out six and didn't issue a walk. His only costly mistake came against a familiar face.
On a day when the baseball world celebrated Jackie Robinson and the outsized impact he left on the sport still resonating decades later, Puig returned to Dodger Stadium with a complex legacy etched in franchise history. To the fan base, he was a beloved figure for his theatrics and eccentricities who starred on six playoff teams in six years. To the organization, he was a frustrating, underachieving talent whose headache-to-production ratio rendered him a trade piece as his salary grew in his final years in L.A.
Clayton Kershaw discusses his first start of the 2019 season following Monday's win over the Cincinnati Reds.
On Monday, he was the opponent and a problem for the Dodgers. Puig walked to the plate in the first inning for his first plate appearance to cheers. They crested when he recognized them by tipping his batting helmet.
"Puiiiiiiiiiiiig!" the masses boomed in unison for their former right fielder.
Four pitches later, Puig smashed an 88-mph slider and admired his work as the ball landed over the center-field wall for a two-run home run. It was Puig's second home run for the Reds. Chances are he will never hit one more gratifying.
The clash with Kershaw began when Puig ripped the first pitch, an 88-mph slider, down the left-field line just foul. He waved at the second pitch, a looping curveball, to fall behind 0-2. He then took a ball high before Kershaw went back to his slider. The pitch lacked depth — a problem that hampered Kershaw last season — and didn't fool Puig. He swatted at it with authority and held an arm up as he approached first base. He looked back at the Reds' dugout when he rounded the bag. The crowd was left stunned, and the Reds had a 2-0 lead.
"I wish I could've done anything but give up a homer to Puig on a first at-bat," Kershaw said. "But he put a great swing on the ball. Unfortunately, I've seen him do that for a while here."
The Dodgers responded rapidly to Puig's spectacle in the bottom of the inning. Pederson led off with a walk against right-hander Luis Castillo. Two batters later, Justin Turner singled before Cody Bellinger smacked a line drive to right field. The ball bounced over the wall for a ground-rule double, limiting the Dodgers to one run on the drive. It was a break for the Reds, and Castillo capitalized, striking out the next two hitters to strand two runners on base.
Los Angeles Times sportswriters Jorge Castillo and Dylan Hernandez break down the first part of the Dodgers' 2019 season and what they need to do to get back on track.
Inconsistent command troubled Castillo and hurt the Dodgers in the third. After issuing a one-out walk to Turner, Castillo hit Bellinger on the right knee with a 96-mph fastball. Bellinger collapsed. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and a trainer raced to the slugger's side.
After a limping down to first base, Bellinger jogged to test out the knee. He stayed in the game but remained in clear pain. He limped for his leads off first base and grimaced. He never appeared comfortable as he watched A.J. Pollock and Max Muncy strike out to terminate the threat. He walked gingerly back to the Dodgers' dugout and didn't reemerge for the top of the fourth. Alex Verdugo took his place in right field. X-rays on Bellinger's knee were negative.
"It looked bad," Roberts said. "That's one of those places you don't want to get hit."
Castillo gifted the Dodgers another scoring chance in the fifth. With runners on first and second, he walked Verdugo to load the bases and walked Pollock to allow a run to score. That brought up Muncy with the bases still full. He struck out a third time. Enrique Hernandez then flied out to center to end the inning and Castillo's night on his 98th pitch.
Meanwhile, Kershaw was plowing through the Reds' lineup. The left-hander faced the minimum from the second until the seventh inning, which Puig led off with a single after striking out in the fourth. He struck out the side in the sixth. No longer overpowering, Kershaw worked both sides of the plate with a fastball averaging 90 mph, a slider a few ticks below that, and a looping curveball to induce 14 swings-and-misses. He outlasted his counterpart and kept the Reds off the board over his final six innings. It was the start he wanted and the start the Dodgers needed before Pederson provided the conclusion to an eventful night starring a couple former teammates.