Posted April 03, 2013

Historic performances by Kershaw and Harper highlight memorable Opening Day

Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Opening Day
Clayton Kersahw

Clayton Kershaw’s home run was just part of his amazing Opening Day performance against the Giants. (AP)

The Opening Day of the 2013 baseball season proved unforgettable even before it was officially over. Highlighted by landmark performances from young superstars Clayton Kershaw and Bryce Harper, Monday had a little bit of everything and reminded us why we love this game so much.

The performance of the day was turned in by Kershaw, the Dodgers ace who not only shutout the defending World Series champion Giants, the first time the defending world champs had been shut out on Opening Day since the 1988 Twins were blanked by the Yankees’ Rick Rhoden, but broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the eighth inning with his first major league home run, making him the first pitcher since Mike Hampton in July 2001 to hit a tie-breaking home run in the eighth inning or later. Better yet, as Jay Jaffe noted earlier, since 1916, the only other pitcher to throw a shutout and hit a home run on Opening Day was the Indians Bob Lemon, a Hall of Famer and one of the all-time great hitting pitchers, back in 1953.

As for Harper, he homered off Ricky Nolasco in his first two at-bats of the season, becoming, at 20, the youngest player ever to homer twice on Opening Day, breaking the previous mark held by a 21-year-old Don Money in 1969. Harper’s two home runs accounted for all of the scoring in the Nationals’ 2-0 win over the Marlins.

We’ll likely still be talking about those two performances in September, but something notable happened in every game. Here, then, are the top storylines from each of the day’s first 10 games. I will send updates after the two late games become final.

Nationals 2, Marlins 0

Harper’s homers were the story of this game, but the reason they held up was that Stephen Strasburg dominated the gutted Marlins lineup. After allowing a leadoff single to Juan Pierre, Strasburg retired 19 straight Miami hitters, a streak finally snapped by a Giancarlo Stanton (of course) double with one out in the seventh. Strasburg only struck out three men in the game, but he walked none and was uncharacteristically efficient, needing just 80 pitches to throw seven scoreless innings, allowing only one more single after Stanton’s hit. That last number may prove to be the most important takeaway from this game, as Washington will be trying to get a full season out of its 24-year-old ace for the first time after Tommy John surgery and rehab and last year’s shutdown short-circuited his first three campaigns.

Dodgers 4, Giants 0

Kershaw was really the only story here, but what a story he authored. His leadoff home run in the eighth almost distracts from just how well he pitched. He allowed just four hits, all singles, and walked no one while striking out seven and needed just 94 pitches to complete the shutout. Strasburg was very good, but Kershaw was better against far better competition. In what may wind up being a season-long duel for the National League Cy Young award, Kershaw has gained the upper hand, for now.

Angels 3, Reds 1, 13 innings

While pre-season favorites the Nationals and the Dodgers celebrated, the favorite in the NL Central, the Reds, had an awful Opening Day. First they lost leftfielder Ryan Ludwick to a separated shoulder, then they failed to cash in a gem by ace Johnny Cueto (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 9 K), ultimately losing 3-1 in 13 innings in the first interleague Opening Day game in major league history. It’s not particularly surprising that the Reds struggled with Angels ace Jered Weaver, but they managed just one hit after the third inning as four Angels relievers threw hitless innings against them.

Then again, maybe it was surprising that they struggled with Weaver as his velocity was way down. After averaging 90 miles per hour with his fastball last year, Weaver didn’t break 90 with a single pitch in this game and his fastball was in the mid-80s by the middle innings. He got the job done (6 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 4 K), but that bears watching given what velocity drops foretold for Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, and Dan Haren last year.

Less consequential was the return to Cincinnati by Josh Hamilton, who started his long-delayed big league career with the Reds in 2007 after overcoming his well-chronicled battles with addiction. Hamilton, in his first game for the Angels after signing a five-year, $125 million deal in the offseason, went 0-for-4 with two walks and a run scored. Fellow superstars Mike Trout (1-for-6, two strikeouts) and Albert Pujols (0-for-4, one walk) were no more impressive as L.A.’s vaunted offense was mostly quiet in its first real test until Chris Iannetta delivered the two-run single in the 13th that proved to be the game-winner.

Braves 7, Phillies 5

Despite an impressive starting pitching matchup of Cole Hamels and Tim Hudson, this game was all offense. The Braves jumped all over Hamels, scoring in each of the first three innings to take a 4-0 lead and never trailed en route to the victory. The highlight of the night for Atlanta fans was the much-anticipated debut of the Upton brothers, centerfielder B.J. and leftfielder Justin. They combined for just one hit but it was an impressive one, a long home run by Justin in the fifth that was the final blow the Braves struck against the shaky Hamels, who departed after five innings. The real offensive star for the Braves was Freddie Freeman, who went 3-for-4 with a two-run home run, while for the Phillies it was Chase Utley, who went 3-for-5 with a solo homer (the 200th of his career) and a triple, falling just a double shy of the cycle.

Cubs 3, Pirates 1

The most significant moment of this game came in the ninth inning when Cubs manager Dale Svuem pulled his closer, Carlos Marmol, just four batters into the frame, later calling on Japanese import Kyuji Fujikawa, who picked up his first major league save. However, Svuem said after the game that Marmol was simply having a bad day, reaffirming his seemingly always shaky hold on the closer’s job. That sequence in the bottom of the ninth distracted from the fact that Jeff Samardzija also out-pitched Strasburg, twirling eight scoreless innings allowing just two hits and a walk while striking out nine. In fact, the two starters in this game struck out a combined 19 men, but the Pirates’ A.J. Burnett gave up three runs, two on a first-inning homer by Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, failed to complete the sixth inning and took the loss.

Brewers 5, Rockies 4, 10 innings

This looked like the least-compelling matchup of the day on Monday morning, but it had a pretty compelling final three innings that resulted in the season’s first walk-off win. The Rockies took an early 2-0 lead on a Troy Tulowitzki home run — an encouraging sign for Colorado after Tulo’s injury-ravaged 2012 — and were up 3-1 heading into the bottom of the eighth. The Brewers, though, rallied against righty Wilton Lopez, who was making his Rockies debut, pushing across three runs with two outs, the last two on an Aramis Ramriez double, to take a 4-3 lead. The Brewers then gave the ball to closer John Axford, who struck out the first two men he faced before Dexter Fowler hit a first-pitch home run to tie the game with two outs in the top of the ninth. After exchanging zeros, the Brewers got a man in scoring position in the 10th when Rickie Weeks was hit by an Adam Ottavino pitch, then stole second. Rookie manager Walt Weiss filled the empty base by intentionally walking Ryan Braun, but Ottavino then walked Ramirez unintentionally on five pitches to push Weeks to third base with one out and Jonathan Lucroy delivered a sac fly to Fowler to score the winning run.

Red Sox 8, Yankees 2

For at least one day, the Yankees proved all the doomsayers right, getting soundly beaten by the Red Sox to suffer their first Opening Day loss at home since 1982. As is his custom, CC Sabathia struggled on Opening Day, giving up four runs in five innings, and Joba Chamberlain got beat up in garbage time, giving up three more runs in the top of the ninth with his team already down 5-2. You know you’re having a bad day when Jose Iglesias picks up three hits against you and Jarrod Saltalamacchia draws three walks. Boston rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. also drew three walks in his major league debut, battling fellow lefty Sabathia, and showing a better approach at the plate than many major leaguers.

Mets 11, Padres 2

This game was all Mets as New York’s Jonathon Niese and three relievers held the Padres to four hits and two walks while the Mets’ hitters jumped all over San Diego starter Edinson Volquez, bouncing him in the fourth and ending that inning with a 7-1 lead. New centerfielder Collin Cowgill added a grand slam in the seventh off righty Brad Brach, going 2-for-5 on the afternoon, the other hit being a double. The only positive for the Padres in this game was that rookie Jedd Gyorko made his major league debut and doubled off Niese for his first major league hit.

White Sox 1, Royals 0

On Monday morning, I wrote that James Shields would likely have just 33 chances to prove that the Wil Myers trade with Tampa Bay was worth it. Well, he delivered in his first opportunity, holding the White Sox to one run on a Tyler Flowers solo homer while scattering seven other hits and walking none over six innings, but it wasn’t enough. The Royals couldn’t break through against Chris Sale, who picked up right where he left off with 7 2/3 scoreless frames and seven strikeouts, or any of three Chisox relievers. One down . . .

Tigers 4, Twins 2

Justin Verlander was so busy striking out Twins in this game (seven in five scoreless innings) that he burned through 91 pitches in those five frames. That gave us a chance to see how Jim Leyland would use his bullpen in a close game. With the Tigers up 3-0 in the sixth, Leyland first went to sixth starter Drew Smyly, who coughed up a run in the sixth and loaded the bases in the seventh. Leyland then went to fireballer Al Alburquerque, who let one of those runs score on a single, then struck out the next two men. Following an insurance run that made it 4-2, Leyland went to Joaquin Benoit in the eighth inning, as was his custom last year, but he left Benoit in to face the righty Josh Willingham leading off the ninth. After Willingham popped out, Leyland called on playoff closer Phil Coke to face lefty Justin Morneau, and after the lefty Coke struck out Morneau, he left him in against righty Ryan Doumit to get the final out and the Tigers’ first save of the season. Incidentally, in his major league debut, Twins’ centerfielder Aaron Hicks failed to hit a fair ball, striking out three times against Verlander before walking against Benoit in the eighth, Benoit’s only baserunner.

Update:

Mariners 2, A’s 0

This game was all pitching, as the Mariners failed to collect an extra-base hit and the A’s failed to score a run. Felix Hernandez was, of course, dominant, allowing just three hits and a walk over 7 2/3 innings while striking out eight, but the A’s did manage to chase him in the eighth by putting the tying runs on base with two outs. Brett Anderson was effective, but his four walks were a significant part of the Mariners’ offense. Of course, the concerns about both teams deal with their ability to score runs, and there was very little encouraging on that front in this matchup as the only two runs in the entire game scored on a Franklin Gutierrez single in the fifth inning.

Diamondbacks 6, Cardinals 2

With Cody Ross and Adam Eaton on the disabled list for the Diamondbacks, Gerardo Parra and A.J. Pollock started in right and center fields, respectively, and went a combined 7-for-9 with four doubles (three of them Parra’s).  The top seven men in the Diamondbacks’ order put on an impressive show, going a combined 15-for-28 (.536) with seven doubles and just three strikeouts. The flip side of that was, in the wake of his new extension, Adam Wainwright’s first start of the 2013 season looked like something out of his 2012 portfolio, combining strong peripherals (six strikeouts, no walks in six innings) with an excess of hits (11) and a middling result (four runs, three earned, the weakest of all quality starts). Ian Kennedy on the other hand was sharp, throwing a ton of strikes, getting ahead of hitters, and striking out eight in seven innings to pick up the win.

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