Plenty of drama on Opening Day
The regular season started in March for the sixth time in major league history
For openers, there were several clutch home runs and aces in midseason form
Rafael Soriano and Jayson Werth made their home debuts with their new teams
NEW YORK -- Five Cuts from a special March 31 edition of baseball's Opening Day that began with Nationals starter Livan Hernandez throwing a strike to Braves outfielder Martin Prado and ended 10 hours later when Giants rookie Brandon Belt lined out into the glove of Dodgers third baseman Juan Uribe:
The Reds retained nearly their entire team and are already getting the same results. After pulling out last at-bat victories for their first six wins last season, Cincinnati opened its 2011 campaign in similar fashion, rallying from a 6-3 ninth-inning deficit to win 7-6. Ramon Hernandez provided the heroics with a three-run, walk-off homer off Brewers closer John Axford.
The late afternoon Padres-Cardinals tilt had similar heroics -- more than once. With the score tied in the bottom of the eighth, St. Louis' Matt Holliday hit a solo homer to put his team up 3-2, only for San Diego's Cameron Maybin to hit a two-out home run in the top of the ninth to tie it at 3. That set up the extra-innings dramatics, in which the Padres scored two in the top of the 11th -- the go-ahead run scored on an error after Maybin singled -- and holding on for the 5-3 win.
The Yankees, meanwhile, won thanks to some admittedly less dramatic late-inning heroics. With the scored tied 3-3 after aces CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander had exited the game for New York and Detroit, Curtis Granderson strode to the plate off lefty Phil Coke and hit the go-ahead home run off his former team. Granderson, who was a game-time decision after suffering a strained oblique last week, also contributed three stellar defensive plays in center field.
In the near-miss category, the Royals' Alex Gordon almost contributed his own three-run walkoff homer off the Angels' Fernando Rodney with two outs in the ninth, but his deep fly to left went foul by 20 feet and he struck out two pitches later for a 4-2 Los Angeles win.
Opening Day is the only day of the season when one can be sure of the pitching matchups: ace vs. ace. On Thursday several -- most notably the two L.A. starters, Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers and Jered Weaver of the Angels, and Atlanta's Derek Lowe -- looked the part on the season's first day. Weaver allowed just two hits and two walks while striking out six in 6 1/3 shutout innings en route to a 4-2 win.
In the evening's nightcap, Kershaw outdid his more celebrated NL West counterpart -- San Francisco's two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum -- by striking out nine and yielding just four hits and one walk over seven innings for the 2-1 victory. (Lincecum was almost as sharp, giving up one unearned run on five hits and three walks while striking out five in seven innings.)
Kershaw carried considerable hype into this season, as many think the young southpaw who turned 23 less than two weeks ago, is primed to vault from being a talented up-and-comer into a star, following the recent path of a couple division counterparts: Lincecum's breakthrough came in '08 and the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez last year. (The Padres' Mat Latos could be primed for such a season next year.)
Kershaw has had two straight years with a sub-3.00 ERA, a WHIP under 1.23 and a K/9 rate of at least 9.3 -- but he cut his BB/9 rate from 4.8 to 3.6 last season and, most encouragingly on Opening Day, issued just one walk in seven frames. He's had 10 starts of that length and that small a walk total in his career. He had three in 2009 and seven in 2010, all of the latter after June 15, suggesting continued improvement.
You can't win 'em all. In an effort to avoid postseason games being played in November, Major League Baseball moved the regular-season schedule up a few days and instead got March baseball, where temperatures barely cracked 40 degrees in Cincinnati, New York and Washington. Rain and maybe light snow are in the forecast for the Northeast overnight, jeopardizing Philadelphia's home opener on Friday.
In only five previous seasons did baseball begin in March, and this year's six-game slate joined 1998, 2003 and 2008 as only the fourth time there was a half or full schedule of games on a date in March. There were 11 games on March 31 in 1998, 12 games on March 31 in 2003 and 12 games on March 31 in 2008. There was one game played on March 31, 2002, and twice were there international trips to Japan to start the season in the last week of March, with Tampa Bay and New York doing so in 2004 and Boston and Oakland following suit in 2008.
There was one clear beneficiary of the pre-April Fool's Opening Day: Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, a notorious slow starter whose career OPS in April is about 150 points lower than in any other month, hit a three-run homer.
The Cincinnati Reds have traditionally hosted the first game on the full Opening Day, but this year their 2 p.m. Eastern start against the Brewers came an hour later than Braves-Nationals and Tigers-Yankees. No matter. Great American Ballpark still hosted history after the first two hitters in Milwaukee's lineup, Rickie Weeks and Carlos Gomez, hit back-to-back home runs off Edinson Volquez, the first time players have hit consecutive homers to start a season since 1969, when the Reds' Pete Rose and Bobby Tolan did so off the Dodgers' Don Drysdale. It was also the first time a Brewer has ever led off his club's season with a home run.
In the nation's capitol there was a different sort of back-to-back home runs, as Atlanta right fielder Jason Heyward homered in his first at-bat of the season after having done the same last year as a rookie. The only other player to hit Opening Day home runs in each of his first two major-league seasons was former Met Kaz Matsui, who did so in 2004 and 2005.
Amidst Opening Day's pomp and circumstance are the traditional team introductions, with each player jogging out of the dugout to the foul line. For the majority of fans who don't travel to spring training, it's their first look at the new roster of players. Among the notable home debuts: right fielder Jayson Werth went 1-for-4 with a single and a strikeout with the Nationals; catcher Russell Martin went 1-for-3 with a single, stolen base and two runs scored and reliever Rafael Soriano had a 1-2-3 eighth inning as they donned Yankee pinstripes for the first time; Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman went 2-for-4 with a run scored before being removed for defense; and Giants shortstop Miguel Tejada went 0-for-4
Of the notable players who debuted on the road were the Braves' Dan Uggla (0-for-4 with two strikeouts), the Tigers' Victor Martinez (1-for-4 with a single and a strikeout), the Brewers' Takashi Saito (a two-hit, two-strikeout, no-run eighth inning) and the Angels' Vernon Wells (1-for-4 with a double, run, strikeout and hit by pitch).
There were also a few role changes worth reviewing. The Padres' Tim Stauffer, primarily a reliever last year who started only one game in the season's first five months, didn't just crack San Diego's rotation but became its opening-day starter, receiving a no-decision after throwing six innings and allowing two runs, one walk and nine hits against only two strikeouts. Braves rookie Craig Kimbrel, who had one save in his big-league cup of coffee last September, notched his first save as Atlanta's anointed closer.
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