Sunday, bloody Sunday for many a frontline starter
On Sunday, no fewer than 10 of the game’s best pitchers — nine of whom took the ball for their respective teams on Opening Day — found the going a whole lot rougher than their last outing, to say nothing of their stellar performances last year. NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, now pitching for the Blue Jays, surrendered five first-inning runs against the Red Sox, and yielded two homers to Will Middlebrooks (who would later add a third) before departing in the fifth inning in a game Toronto lost 13-0. AL Cy Young winner David Price was smoked for eight runs in five innings by the Indians, yielding a pair of homers as well, amid Tampa Bay’s 13-0 defeat.
While Dickey and Price did nothing to help themselves add another award to their mantlepieces, the same could be said for a trio of other NL Cy Young hopefuls, all of whom put up disastrous starts in which they finished with more runs allowed than innings pitched. Facing the Cardinals, Matt Cain became the first Giant since John Cronin in 1902 to surrender nine runs in one inning; two of the runs scored in the third inning came after he had been knocked out of the game, and the Giants were trampled 14-3. Cole Hamels blew a 4-0 first-inning lead against the Royals, yielding a grand slam to Billy Butler that was changed from a bases-clearing double upon review by the umpires; the Phillies wound up losing 9-8. Stephen Strasburg was touched for three first-inning runs by the Reds and tied a career high for hits allowed with nine as the Nationals fell 6-3.
James Shields, Ian Kennedy and Yovani Gallardo avoided partaking in the disasterpiece theater, but all three allowed four runs in six innings. Shields’s runs all came in the first inning opposite Hamels, but he hung on from there to put up five straight zeroes before departing.
The only one of the 10 pitchers not to start on Opening Day was Yu Darvish, who came within one out of a perfect game in his first outing. He was anything but perfect on Sunday night, loading the bases before recording a single out against the Angels. He escaped having allowed just two first-inning runs, and wound up departing after five innings — and giving up mere three runs — due to a blister. Opposite number Jered Weaver was hit for two first-inning homers, and left after five innings as well after straining his left elbow when he landed awkwardly while diving out of the way of a ball.
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All told, that’s a collective 9.80 ERA for the day from pitchers who combined for a 3.18 mark last year, with high walk and homer rates (4.5 and 1.4 per nine, respectively) exacerbated by flurries of hits, and a batting average on balls in play of .408.
Other than a possible letdown from the adrenaline and excitement of Opening Day (or in Darvish’s case, the perfect game bid), there’s no single explanation as to why so many good pitchers threw so many duds. Lower velocities may have been a factor here and there, but velocities tend to be lower in April anyway, and they’re generally offset by cooler temperatures, given the ball doesn’t carry as much. Unlike on Opening Day, the Sunday games in question weren’t actually chilly. The lowest starting temperature of any of the games in question was 59 degrees, and both Cincinnati and Texas were around 70 degrees on first pitch. Price and Dickey threw indoors in their respective home parks, while both Kennedy and Gallardo squared off with the roof closed at Miller Park.
Not every ace or frontline pitcher was hammered on Sunday. CC Sabathia, who struggled amid reduced velocity on Opening Day, rebounded with seven scoreless innings against the Tigers. Justin Verlander, who, after allowing three second-inning runs, looked as though he might join the aforementioned company, hung on to throw 7 1/3 innings without yielding another run. Jon Lester and Justin Masterson gave their teams seven scoreless innings apiece opposite Dickey and Price, respectively.
Sunday was a reminder that even the best players in the game can have terrible days. But before anyone climbs out the window fretting over whether Hamels’ 10.97 ERA or Dickey’s early woes since transferring to the American League actually mean anything, it’s worth remembering that it’s just one game out of 162 in a long season. We’ll have a whole lot more to overreact to once it’s all said and done.