Opening Day: Starters terrific, bullpens not
April, 5, 2012
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
The anticipation begins as soon as the final out of the World Series is recorded. It builds during an offseason of trade rumors and free-agent signings, spring training injury updates and roster cutdowns. Then Opening Day arrives and maybe a small part of us wonders whether we'll still care as much. But then Justin Verlander takes the mound and Jacoby Ellsbury steps in and we wonder whether Verlander can amaze us like he did so often last year or whether Ellsbury will have the same lightning in his bat. Roy Halladay takes the mound and we wonder whether this is the season he slips a bit or why Ty Wigginton is batting fifth or whether the Pirates will actually do anything.
So we flip on the TV or the computer or check the updates on our phones. Maybe you sneak a peek at work or school. We're kids again, with a million questions that need answers and baseball on our minds.
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A few notes from the early games ...
- Justin Verlander picked up where he left off, dominating the Red Sox with eight shutout innings. He got into one mini-jam, two runners on with two outs in the sixth and David Ortiz up. Ortiz got in an 0-2 hole, fouled off two pitches, and then Verlander spun a filthy, 82 mph curveball that Ortiz swung through, leaving him shaking his head in respectful disgust. Jon Lester was nearly as good for Boston and could have escaped without a run. Alex Avila doubled deep into the left-field corner with two outs in the seventh, a nice piece of hitting in which he fought off a 93 mph up-and-in fastball. The ball hung in the air awhile, but Cody Ross was unable to track it down. (Would Carl Crawford have made the play?)
When the Tigers tacked another run off Vicente Padilla in the eighth to make it 2-0, the game appeared over. Jim Leyland yanked Verlander after 105 pitches -- he averaged 116 per outing in 2011 -- and brought in Papa Grande, Jose Valverde, Mr. Perfect who was 52-for-52 in save opportunities last season including the playoffs. But this is why we love baseball: Sure enough, Valverde blows the save, and everybody wonders why Verlander was taken out.
For what it's worth, nobody tosses a complete game anymore on Opening Day. There have been just six nine-inning outings since 2000, and only Felix Hernandez has gone the distance since 2007.
Valverde got the vulture win when the Tigers scored in the bottom of the ninth, so in the end the only negative for Detroit was Verlander didn't get the deserved "W" next to his name, a reminder of why he might pitch just as well and not win 24 games again. Jhonny Peralta and Avila hit soft singles off Mark Melancon -- Ryan Sweeney, who failed to track down Austin Jackson's leadoff triple in the eighth pulled up short on Peralta's hit. (It was the smart play with one out; you can't give up an extra-base hit there.) Bobby Valentine then went to Alfredo Aceves, his designated closer and a better bet to induce a ground ball, although also less of a strikeout pitcher. Anyway, Aceves hit Ramon Santiago, then Jackson drilled a 2-1 pitch past a diving Kevin Youkilis for the winning hit.
One game in, and you already know there will be questions raised about the Red Sox's bullpen.
- Halladay was Halladay, with eight cruise-control innings against the Pirates. There were a few concerns during spring training when Halladay allowed seven home runs in just 22 innings after surrendering just 10 last season. But he flipped the switch and allowed two hits and no walks, and threw just 92 pitches. Jonathan Papelbon showed what a closer is supposed to do, with a 1-2-3 ninth.
The Phillies' lineup, of course, is a cause for concern with Chase Utley and Ryan Howard out, and one run won't alleviate those concerns. But for at least one day Phillies fans can toast Ty Wigginton, who scored the game's only run and made a nice stretch at first base to record the final out of the eighth. Yes, Phillies fans are counting on Wigginton to be productive. Chalk it up as a reason nobody can predict what will happen this season.
- For a while, it looked like we might have three or four games end 1-0. There were 52 such games in 2011, never more than two on one day. But the late rallies in Detroit and then Chicago ended that. The Mets' 1-0 victory included five solid innings from Johan Santana. He was throwing 87-88 mph, but because he relies on his slider and changeup, he doesn't necessarily have to be overpowering. In 2010, when he posted a 2.98 ERA before his season-ending injury in September, Santana averaged 89.4 mph on his fastball. That was down from his peak velocity with the Twins of 93 mph, but he proved he still can be effective throwing 88-90.
- Stephen Strasburg was also impressive in a windy day at Wrigley, allowing one run over seven innings. Ryan Dempster was even more dominant, striking out 10 over 7 2/3 innings. Kerry Wood came on with a runner on base ... and walked three batters in a row. Jayson Werth battled back from an 0-2 count to force in the tying run. The Nationals then scored in the ninth off the always-shaky Carlos Marmol to win 2-1. The Cubs got a one-out triple from Ian Stewart, but Jeff Baker swung at a first-pitch slider from Brad Lidge and pulled it to third base as Stewart went on contact. He was easily out at home plate. Nothing more painful than blowing a late lead to lose at home on Opening Day. Wait 'til next year, Cubbies.