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July 25, 2014

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Locals love it as MLB makes quick trip Down Under

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Rick Rycroft / AP

Los Angeles Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, left, is about to be tagged out at third base by the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Marin Prado during the second game of the two-game Major League Baseball opening series between the two teams at the Sydney Cricket ground in Sydney on Sunday, March 23, 2014.

SYDNEY — Yasiel Puig and Paul Goldschmidt hadn't left the stadium before workers began dismantling what was quite an impressive place to play baseball.

For a week, at least.

Home plate was dug up, the pitcher's mound flattened and the 8-foot-high perimeter home run fence taken down within an hour after Puig's Los Angeles Dodgers beat Goldschmidt's Arizona Diamondbacks 7-5 Sunday.

It was a two-game Dodgers' sweep of Major League Baseball's opening weekend at Sydney Cricket Ground.

The Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw won the Saturday opener 3-1, sending the Diamondbacks back to the U.S. 0-2 to start the season and with the L.A. team holding a very early two-game lead in the NL West over their Arizona adversaries.

The regular season will resume next weekend for both teams, with a few exhibition games scheduled this week while they recover from jet lag after the 15-hour flights Down Under and back.

The cricket ground, and Australian baseball fans, meanwhile, may never be the same.

Nearly 80,000 fans attended the weekend games at the 162-year-old ground in leafy Moore Park, minutes from downtown Sydney.

Clearly, sports-mad Australia loved having the world's best baseball players in Sydney. So did their rugby, cricket, soccer and Aussie Rules football stars who took time to mingle with Kershaw and Puig, among others, for photo shoots.

It was a mutual admiration society, with Kershaw posing on his birthday with a kangaroo and kicking around a rugby ball on the eve of his opener. Puig and Goldschmidt even tried their hand at cricket.

Cracker Jack and two-foot-long hotdogs became part of the menu at the SCG snack bars, and MLB commissioner Bud Selig was non-committal about a return to Australia in the near future.

Australian fans might like to see it sooner than later. Never were foul balls into the stands more heartily cheered, because they could keep them. In cricket, where balls are changed only after a predetermined amount of play, they must be returned to the field.

"This event was outstanding, really cool," Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson said. "The crowds were great. The preparation from the city of Sydney was outstanding. They treated us well."

Mattingly says a concern after the teams return to the U.S. will be avoiding complacency. They'll have a few days off, then three exhibition games before returning to the regular season next Sunday for a three-game series in San Diego.

"My biggest fear is when you start games, games that don't count are tough to get ready to play," he said. "And then you get lazy and you get bad habits. That's what I will try to fight."

Regardless, Mattingly loved his Australian experience.

"Your team kind of comes together on a trip because you really don't know anyone else," he said. "We document how far you've got to go, and how it changes our schedule, but at the end of the day you look back on it as a memory you don't really forget."

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