The distance between Los Angeles, Calif., and Sydney, Australia, is roughly 7,500 miles or 6,500 nautical miles. For Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw, the difference between an $11 million salary in 2013 and a $215 million contract extension is even bigger.
Despite the unique circumstances around Major League Baseball's Opening Day and Kershaw's freshly minted status as the highest-paid arm in the history of the sport, his dominance remains the same.
In baseball, money seems to change the production and trajectory of stars on a yearly basis. After signing the record-breaking deal in the offseason, Kershaw took the mound at the Sydney Cricket Ground eager to make fans remember him for performance, not salary.
With an excellent game (6.2 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 7 SO, 1 BB), the 26-year-old lefty did just that. Kershaw toyed with the Arizona Diamondbacks and lifted the Dodgers to the first of what should be many wins during the 2014 season.
The contract and status as the best pitcher in the sport will follow Kershaw throughout the season, but don't expect the added pressure, expectations or dollar figure to change the once-in-a-generation talent.
That was evident during his last frame in Australia. When Dodgers manager Don Mattingly walked to the mound to remove his ace from the game, Kershaw bristled.
On March 22, the team can't push its most important player past the 101-pitch mark. Surely Kershaw understood why he was being removed from the game, but it didn't matter.
As a competitor and staff leader, he wanted to continue mowing down Arizona's lineup.
In his 25th Opening Day inning over 4 years #Dodgers Clayton Kershaw finally gives up a run.— Bill Plunkett (@billplunkettocr) March 22, 2014
After posting an unsightly 9.20 ERA across 14.2 spring training innings, Kershaw found fastball command and featured his typical filthy array of curveballs and sliders against a hapless and confounded Diamondbacks lineup.
Despite the spring struggles, Mattingly didn't panic or show any concern during the Cactus League slate, per Ken Gurnick of MLB.com:
Good thing is, it's Spring Training, that's why we're here. He had the same kind of spring last year. He has a level of expectation of always being good. I don't have a problem with that. He expects to be in midseason form, and we keep working toward that. He gets frustrated. That's why we love him.
Among the great qualities Kershaw possesses on the mound—velocity, command, work ethic, drive, stamina—none supersedes his desire to compete, win and perform at the highest level possible.
One game into the 2014 season, the 2013 version of Kershaw was on display.
Last season, on the path to a third consecutive ERA title, he had 17 games of at least 6.2 innings pitched and allowing one or fewer earned runs. As you would imagine, that was more than any starter in baseball by a wide margin.
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As the season progresses, expect a slew of double-digit strikeouts and low walk totals from a pitcher who has sported a 4.20 SO/BB since the start of the 2011 season, per Baseball-Reference.
In the season opener, Kershaw merely posted a 7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. For him, that's a typical outing. For others, it's a career day.
Last year, he had 12 outings of at least seven strikeouts and no more than one walk, tying Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez for the league lead, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). Since the start of the 2011 season, Kershaw has pitched 29 games of equal performance.
Will Kershaw win the ERA title again in 2014?
On Opening Day, the country was different, and the field and surface were foreign.
But when the bell rang, nothing changed for a starter on the verge of a rare career. For Kershaw, the opening tilt in Sydney might as well have been an innocuous June start against the Padres in San Diego.
That, more than seven strikeouts or run-suppressing pitching, is what stood out.
As 2014 recorded its first chapter, the narrative read much like the story of 2013 when it came to Kershaw's performance.