Plenty to like with Dodgers’ stars

Public opinion polls can be expensive, and, as you may have heard, the Los Angeles Dodgers aren’t keen on spending money unless they have to. Fortunately for them, baseball produces an annual fan referendum at no cost. It’s called Opening Day.

Fill the stadium, bring out the big names and listen to the applause.

On Thursday night at Dodger Stadium, the loudest cheers belonged to franchise icons Fernando Valenzuela and Vin Scully. Next, I believe, were Tommy Lasorda and Davey Lopes.

Astute readers will note that Valenzuela, Scully, Lasorda and Lopes have something in common. None of them are on the active roster.

If the decibels were any guide, Dodgers fans are more enamored by what their team was rather than what their team is. Coming off a losing season, the ownership a punch line, I can’t say I blame them.

But I believe the Dodgers will win the National League West. At the risk of oversimplifying the 162-game saga, the reason is this: In Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, they have three stars capable of carrying a team through the long summer.

Kershaw received the loudest pregame ovation on Thursday — among the current players, that is — and then demonstrated why he deserves the acclaim. He blanked the rival Giants over seven innings and handed the defending champs their first meaningful loss since Game 3 of last year’s World Series.

Kemp had a debut that buttressed (at least for one day) the belief that he is a changed ballplayer. He singled in his first at-bat. He set a career high with three walks. He scored the Dodgers’ only runs in a 2-1 win.

Ethier was just OK. Oh, and Don Mattingly is 1-0.

“Good to get that first one out of the way,” Kershaw said of his new manager. “Same for me. Relax a little bit and move on with the season.”

And the season holds promise for the Dodgers. Really. I promise.

First, there’s Kershaw. He just celebrated his 23rd birthday a couple weeks ago, and I would be shocked if he doesn’t blossom into a Cy Young candidate this year. The Giants, who played at the Polo Grounds during their most recent title defense, didn’t produce a hard-hit single until the sixth inning.

Kershaw struck out nine. The last Dodger with that many strikeouts in an opener: Valenzuela.

“He’s their ace,” said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who knows something about twentysomething pitching studs. “He’s got good stuff, throws hard. He had his pitches going.”

Above all, Kershaw looked at ease on the mound. It’s easy to forget that there are only two full major-league seasons on the back of his baseball cards. I remember covering Game 1 of the 2009 National League Championship Series, on this very same lawn, when Kershaw seemed overwhelmed by the occasion against the swashbuckling Phillies.

There was none of that Thursday.

“Earlier in my career, those first two or three innings were huge, just to calm myself down,” the lefty explained. “Tonight, I felt pretty good all the way through.”

He’s growing up. Just like Kemp. Let’s not forget, Kemp is only 26. He is coming off a season in which he batted .249 and was maligned for his defense, baserunning and overall comportment. To his credit, he rededicated himself during the offseason and this spring. He worked with Lopes in center field and on the bases. On Thursday, in a nationally televised game, we saw the results.

“He’s freer,” general manager Ned Colletti said. “He seems to be in a happier place.”

In the sixth inning, Kemp’s hustle in breaking up a double play may have rushed shortstop Miguel Tejada into a throwing error (he later scored). In the eighth, he stole his way into scoring position and came around with the eventual winning run on James Loney’s double.

The guy who once wouldn’t walk, walked.

“Just trying to look for pitches to hit,” said Kemp, who didn’t draw his third base on balls until Game 9 last year. “You know, being patient. What I was looking for, I wasn’t really getting, so I wasn’t swinging. Just trying to get on base, make something happen.”

Kemp batted cleanup with Ethier in front of him. If Kemp maintains this approach, he should have a huge year — which, in turn, would help Ethier’s chances of doing the same. Colletti talked before the game about the potential that Kemp and Ethier have to be team leaders — the implication being that they haven’t risen to that status yet.

To be a leader, Colletti said, a player’s preparation and play must be “beyond reproach.”

Ethier, though, made some inscrutable remarks a few days ago about the possibility that this could be his final season with the Dodgers. It was an odd admission, since Ethier won’t become a free agent until after next year.

Perhaps Ethier is concerned that Frank McCourt’s financial woes will prevent the Dodgers from giving him a long-term extension at the going rate — thus the appeal of (a) a new owner or (b) a new team. A valid concern, but not something that needs to be discussed publicly. Not now, anyway.

If he hits, no one will care. And really, that’s my point about this team. Yes, the ownership soap opera is an embarrassment. But the Dodgers have three of the most talented players in the National League, and Colletti has demonstrated that he’s an expert at in-season roster tinkering. Once you have a few elite players, it’s the little changes that get you to October.

The Giant Way of 2010 can be The Dodger Way of 2011.