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Cain looks ahead to Opening Day start against Dodgers

LOS ANGELES -- The reigning World Series champion Giants face off against their eternal rivals, the Dodgers, and the inflated expectations created by Los Angeles' all-time record payroll. Hollywood's most creative minds couldn't script for nearby Dodger Stadium a more fascinating Opening Series.

As if Matt Cain, in the afterglow of a perfect season complete with a perfect game and a World Series clincher, confronting Clayton Kershaw, arguably the game's best young pitcher, isn't enough opening drama on Monday afternoon, there's a dash of revenge on the menu. It was the Giants, gearing up for their magical postseason run, who eliminated the Dodgers from National League Wild Card contention in the final series by dropping them in the penultimate game of the 2012 season in L.A.

"You've got to beat the best to be the best," Magic Johnson, celebrated front man of the Dodgers' Guggenheim Partners ownership group, said in anticipation of baseball's version of "Showtime" in Chavez Ravine. "I believe both teams can make each other better.

"That last week of the season helped the Giants win it all. They got momentum. They had something to play for; they were hitting on all cylinders, because they had to beat us. With them being in our division, it's going to be a dogfight."

Since they expanded the sport's horizons with their move to the West Coast in 1958, the Dodgers and Giants have gone after each other with a vengeance. From Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays to Buster Posey and Matt Kemp, they've battled for bragging rights in the NL and in the Golden State.

Before manager Bruce Bochy and Co. put everything together with their 2010 World Series championship run, the Dodgers had been preeminent since moving to California, with five World Series titles, nine pennants and 17 postseason appearances. The Giants, in San Francisco, waited more than a half-century for their first Fall Classic title. They own five pennants and 10 postseason entries since moving to the West Coast.

But this is a new era, and the Giants are the big dogs now. They have everything the Dodgers want: championships, continuity, cohesion and chemistry. And crucially, confidence -- deep, justified faith in their ability to make amazing things happen under the most extreme pressure conditions.

"It's something that happens over time," Bochy said. "It's like a player whose success usually feeds off his own success. Teams, I believe, are the same. They figure out a way to win, and it's contagious. You know how to win and how to deal with other things. When you're going through a tough time, a stretch all teams are going to have, you don't overreact.

"These guys handled it well last year when [Melky] Cabrera went down [with a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use] and Pablo [Sandoval] was injured. They showed how confident they were in each other. You don't get lucky and do what we did two of the last three years. It takes talent and commitment."

In the postseason, down 2-0 to the Reds in the NL Division Series and 3-1 to the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series, the Giant won an unprecedented six postseason elimination games. Then they swept the Tigers in the World Series, using their familiar formula of pitching, defense and clutch hitting.

Center fielder Angel Pagan and second baseman Marco Scutaro, free agents after playing vital roles in the title run, kept intact the chemistry at the top of the order. Posey is healthy and coming off an NL MVP season behind the plate with occasional appearances at first base, where Brandon Belt is showed signs of emerging as a force. The condition of Sandoval, the World Series hero with his three homers in Game 1, is the question mark. He has a nerve condition in the elbow of his throwing arm.

The Dodgers in some quarters are favored to claim the NL West after pushing their payroll over $200 million with a series of expensive, high-profile additions starting last July with the acquisition of shortstop Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins. In late August, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto were acquired from Boston. The winter brought high-priced starters Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu into the fold.

"We don't get caught up in what other teams do and what people think," Bochy said in response to a question about the Dodgers. "We focus on ourselves and what we need to do to win."

Greinke and Ryu fortify a deep rotation fronted by Kershaw, the 2011 NL Cy Young Award winner. The bullpen, featuring Brandon League and Kenley Jansen, also is deep and talented.

The primary question marks surround an offense that sputtered even after blockbuster deals landed Ramirez and Gonzalez. Matt Kemp, the superstar center fielder, was hindered by a shoulder injury requiring offseason surgery. Crawford was nowhere to be seen.

At 31, coming off Tommy John elbow surgery, Crawford intends to re-ignite his career at the top of the order and perform at the elite level he maintained with the Rays for nine seasons before signing a free-agent deal with Boston after the 2010 season.

"I'm hungry," said Crawford, a four-time All-Star who led the American League in triples and steals four times. "I can use all my tools again -- running, being aggressive, getting back to my game. I'm getting a fresh start, a chance to clear my mind after the last two years."

Ramirez, who required surgery to repair his right thumb after tearing a tendon diving for a ground ball for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, is expected to miss at least the first six weeks of the season.

"This is where being an experienced team kicks in," Gonzalez said. "Punto, Jerry Hairston, Juan Uribe, these guys have won World Series and had key roles as platoon guys. They've had to step in and step up to do a job, and they're all proven capable."

Giants: Keeping chemistry intact
Don't mess with success.

The Giants clearly took that stance over the winter when they elected to bring back Pagan and Scutaro. The veterans at the top of the order set the table -- and cleared it now and then -- as the team rolled through August and September, turning a close NL West race into a runaway.

"We like our chances," Brandon Crawford, the Giants' young, gifted shortstop, said. "We've got our guys back. It's pretty much the same team we had last year. What we accomplished last year is our goal this year."

Crawford values Pagan's multiple talents and is happy to be reunited with Scutaro, who signed a three-year, $20 million deal at age 37. Pagan, 31, agreed to a four-year, $40 million contract.

"Marco brought veteran leadership up the middle," said Crawford, who smoothed over some rough edges and played brilliantly after being united with Scutaro. "He stabilized our infield and was great with the bat. He's a smart, veteran guy who has a lot of respect with his teammates."

Scutaro, a career .276 hitter with six teams, batted .362 for the Giants after arriving in a deal with the Rockies. Overall, he had a career year, hitting .306 with 87 runs scored and 74 RBIs in 620 at-bats. Pagan batted .288 with 95 runs scored and a league-leading 15 triples in 605 at-bats.

Dodgers: Chemistry coming together
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly understands the expectations generated by the collection of All-Star-caliber players. The trouble last summer was that they were not playing an All-Star Game. They were in a pennant race, and the Dodgers couldn't find the chemistry that propelled the Giants, who acquired Scutaro and right fielder Hunter Pence to solidify their lineup and defense.

"We kind of threw it together," Mattingly said. "Everybody in [the clubhouse] kind of felt the chemistry thing. There was never really a problem with it. It's having guys on the same page. Coming in during the heat of a pennant race, trying to win [a Wild Card] at the end of the year, they didn't really know us. Now there's a connection between guys. More than anything, it's time together."

Luis Cruz, a career Minor Leaguer who became a godsend for the 2012 Dodgers, will be part of the equation in replacing Ramirez at shortstop and in the lineup.

"This year's different," Cruz said. "I think the guys are very happy with how everybody is coming together. We're all hungry to go to the playoffs and World Series."

Kemp, looking for his power stroke to resurface after shoulder surgery, agreed.

"That's what Spring Training is all about," Kemp, a vocal leader, said. "We all have great relationships in here. Last year, the second half was different, it was like we had a brand-new team."

Worth noting:
• Cain was 1-0 with a 2.73 ERA in four starts against the Dodgers last season, not facing Kershaw head to head. For his career, Cain is 4-8 with a 3.41 ERA in 23 games against L.A.

• Kershaw, getting up for his team's big rival, has been dominant against the Giants. He was 2-3 last year in five games, through no fault of his own. His ERA was 1.62 and he held Giants hitters to a .197 batting average. In 17 career outings against San Francisco, Kershaw is 8-4 with a remarkable 1.37 ERA in 118 innings. His 0.88 WHIP vs. the Giants is his best against any club he's faced more than twice.

• By taking one of the games at Dodger Stadium in the season's finale series -- knocking the Dodgers out of Wild Card contention -- enabled the Giants to seize the season series 10-8. Comments