Well, baseball fans. After that slate of Opening Day games, I have but one question for you. . .
This year’s Opening Day absolutely had it all. No, that’s not hyperbole. It literally had just about everything that we as baseball fans could have imagined to ask for.
Pitching duels? I direct your attention to Cincinnati, where the Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals locked horns with Johnny Cueto of the Reds. Wainwright struck out nine batters over seven shutout innings. Cueto almost matched him, striking out eight over seven innings of his own. Both starters gave up just three hits on the afternoon. But Cincinnati’s right hander made one costly mistake on the day – a first pitch fastball in the seventh inning that catcher Yadier Molina blasted into the outfield seats. It was the difference in a 1-0 St. Louis victory.
And if you’re the kind of fan that likes to see history made and/or streaks broken, that marked the first time the Reds have been shut out on Opening Day since 1953, Wainwright’s first Opening Day win and the 100th win of Wainwright’s career.
Dominant pitching not your thing? Prefer the thrill and exhilaration of a walk-off win? Then I hope you were watching the Royals-Tigers game. Alex Gonzalez – baseball senior citizen (he’s 37), stop-gap shortstop and newest acquisition of the Detroit Tigers – lined an RBI single off of Kansas City closer Greg Holland to deliver the win for the home-team. When Detroit signed him to fill in for injured shortstop Jose Iglesias, I’m sure they hoped that he could just field the position competently. They couldn’t have imagined that he’d already be delivering heroics.
Even if you’re the type of fan who wants to have his cake and eat it to – who would like to see both a good pitching matchup and an exciting finish – you could have had your way yesterday by tuning in to the Cubs-Pirates game. The two teams found themselves deadlocked in a scoreless extra-inning tie thanks to the efforts of their pitching staffs. Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano tied a team record with 10 Opening Day strikeouts over six innings of work. Chicago starter Jeff Samardzija tossed seven innings of five-hit baseball, and did so with just 89 pitches. Both bullpens were equally as impressive until Pirates second baseman Neil Walker smashed a Carlos Villanueva changeup into right field in the bottom of the tenth. It was the first walk-off of Walker’s career and the first on Opening Day for the Pirates since 1965.
Of course, there are other fans who feel that good pitching matchups make for boring games. They prefer to watch offensive onslaughts with softball-like scoring flurries. They would have loved the Phillies’ 14-10 win in Texas. The game featured 31 combined hits, four home runs and one memorable day for Jimmy Rollins, who had been embroiled in Spring controversy for what was reported as a poor attitude. The Phillies shortstop hit his 200th career home run in epic fashion – with a second inning grand slam the opened the offensive flood gates. He became only the 19th player in the history of baseball with at least 400 doubles, 100 triples and 200 home runs. He also tied Cal Ripken, Jr.’s major league record by starting his 14th Opening Day at shortstop for the same franchise.
It was a rough debut for Rangers starter Tanner Scheppers (though established ace Cliff Lee didn’t fare much better). With pitchers Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland all on the disabled list, Scheppers became the first pitcher since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 to make his first career Major League start on Opening Day. The former reliever gave up seven runs over four innings of work, which included a six-run second inning.
Speaking of rough debuts, Billy Hamilton (0-for-4, 4 Ks), this Golden Sombrero is for you.
It’s an award given to players unfortunate enough to strike out four times in a single game. I can’t help but feel bad for Cincinnati’s new leadoff man and center fielder. The combination of Opening Day jitters and Wainwright’s precision and nastiness was obviously a tad bit overwhelming.
There were a couple of come-from-behinds. A four-run seventh inning and Buster Posey’s two-run homer in the ninth pushed the Giants past the Diamondbacks 9-8. Denard Span doubled in a clutch, game-tying run in the ninth before Anthony Rendon’s three-run homer in the 10th capped off a 9-7 Nationals comeback win against the Mets.
Down in Miami, Marcell Ozuna flirted with hitting for the cycle. The center fielder homered, doubled and singled (in that order) and scored three times. Meanwhile young ace Jose Fernandez was doing what he normally does: dominating. Six innings pitched, five hits and just one earned run – a Carlos Gonzalez bomb that might have been the result of Fernandez pounding the strike zone thanks to a six-run lead and left the 21-year-old smiling and mouthing “wow” in admiration. Fernandez is now 10-0 in 16 total starts at Marlins Park. Oh, and he was the youngest Opening Day starter since Dwight “Doc” Gooden in 1986.
Baseball’s new instant replay system took center stage in a couple of games as well. The Cubs made history by initiating the first regular season review under the new guidelines, challenging a double-play “safe” call in the top of the fifth inning on a Jeff Samardzija sacrifice bunt attempt. The call on the field was confirmed by the replay. The Pirates successfully challenged and had overturned a “safe” call on a pickoff play at first base in the top of the tenth inning. But theirs wasn’t the first successful challenge on the day.
That honor belongs to the Atlanta Braves, who had Ryan Braun called out on what had been ruled an infield single in the sixth. Most importantly (in my mind, at least) – that review took just 58 seconds.
The game was Braun’s first since serving a 65-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal that rocked the MLB last year. A lot had been made about what kind of reception the slugger would receive from his home crowd, not just because he has been involved with performance enhancing drugs but because of the way he lied about it and tried to cover it up. There was a smattering of boos when Braun was introduced as part of the starting lineup, but the sellout crowd at Miller Park showered him with a standing ovation when he stepped into the batter’s box for his first at-bat. Mystery solved. Now Braun can move on to playing baseball again.
Barry Bonds was received a little differently on his return to Pittsburgh. Bonds took part in a pre-game ceremony honoring Andrew McCutcheon by presenting him with the 2014 NL MVP award – an award Bonds won twice as a member of the Pirates. He, too was met with a mixed crowd response, only he didn’t have the chance to get an at-bat to re-win the home crowd over. The home run king is maligned by some in Pittsburgh, not just because of the allegations that he used performance enhancing drugs during his career, but because he left them for San Francisco in 1992.
Sadly, there was also some injury news that surfaced yesterday. Jose Reyes, the uber talented Toronto shortstop who has been limited with a series of injuries over the last few seasons, will be heading back to the disabled list. Reyes left the Blue Jays’ 9-2 loss to Tampa Bay after feeling tightness in his hamstring after his first at-bat. He’s scheduled to undergo an MRI, but it’s horrible news for Jays fans, whose hopes rest in large part on the spark Reyes can provide to the offense. Reyes injured his ankle in Toronto’s 10th game last year and was out until June 26th. By then the Jays were already well out of the AL East race.
Reyes’ injury is somewhat sad. The injury suffered by Don Baylor was downright bizarre. The Angels hitting coach broke his leg fielding the ceremonial first pitch before last night’s Angels-Mariners game. The pitch was thrown by former Angel Vladimir Guerrero, who had signed a one-day contract so that he could retire as a member of the Halos. But Vlad’s pitch was off the plate. It caused the 64-year-old Baylor to reach for the ball, twist his leg awkwardly and to have to be helped off the field. Unbeknownst to me, Baylor was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a cancer that weakens the bones, back in 2003. Baylor is having surgery today to set what was determined to be a fractured right femur. Get well soon Don.
Whew! I am exhausted just from trying to recap all that we witnessed yesterday. The sun was certainly shining on baseball’s Opening Day, literally and figuratively. And just think we still have 161 more of these kinds of days to go!
If you’re seriously not excited about baseball yet, you need to check your pulse. No matter what you enjoy out of sports, yesterday is proof that baseball has it all. The 2014 season is officially underway, and if you follow me in following it closely, I promise you will be entertained.