More openers for the agesby Craig Brown
April 04, 2008
What an Opening Day.
A dramatic ninth inning home run to christen a new ballpark, three games decided in extra innings and a couple of pitching gems in Southern California.
After revisiting my article from last week about great Opening Days, I realized it was lacking in games from the last 10 years. So, thanks to some readers, some more time spent at Retrosheet, and some great games on Sunday and Monday, here are some of the notable Opening Day performances of the last eight years.
Welcome to America
It’s kind of hard to recall, but before Kazuo Matsui arrived in America to play shortstop for the Mets, he was feared as one of the top hitters in the Japanese Pacific League. Over his final two seasons with the Seibu Lions, Matsui averaged .318/.377/.583 with 36 home runs and 111 scored.
Expectations were high when he stepped into the batter's box for the Mets on Opening Day in 2004. Batting leadoff and facing Russ Ortiz and the Braves, Matsui swung at the first pitch of the 2004 season and crushed it 429 feet to center field for a home run. With that swing, Matsui became the first player since 1938 to hit his first major league home run while leading off on Opening Day. And he also became the first player since Dwight Evans in 1986 to hit a home run on the first pitch of the season.
It was the beginning of a spectacular day for Matsui: He reached base in all five of his plate appearances. In addition to his leadoff home run, he hit an RBI double in the second, walked with the bases loaded in the third to pick up another RBI and doubled in the fifth. By the seventh, the Braves were worn out and trailing 7-2, so with runners on second and third, Matsui was intentionally walked. He finished the day going three-for-three, with three RBI and a run scored.
The following year, Matsui was up to his old tricks. This time, the Mets opened in Cincinnati and Matsui was batting second. Facing Paul Wilson in the top of the first, he didn’t swing at the first pitch, instead working the count full and fouling one off before blasting another home run, making him a perfect two-for-two in hitting Opening Day home runs in his first at-bat. His accomplishment was slightly overshadowed by the fact it was Pedro Martinez’s debut for the Mets and he struck out 12 hitters in six innings.
Unfortunately for Matsui and the Mets, he was unable to sustain his Opening Day magic. By the time he was traded to the Colorado Rockies in June of 2006, Matsui was a career .256/.308/.363 hitter with just 11 home runs. Now with the Astros, he spent this year’s Opening Day on the DL.
The unlikely hero
After the Royals finished above .500 for the first time in eight years in 2003, hopes were high in Kansas City entering the 2004 season. Honest! Some prognosticators even picked them to win the Central. In the opener, the Royals were hosting the White Sox.
In the early going, there was nothing out of the ordinary. The Sox touched Royals starter Brian Anderson for four runs in the second and another run in the fourth. He gave way to Shawn Camp, who surrendered a pair of runs in the seventh, giving Chicago a 7-2 cushion. The Royals picked up a run in the bottom half of their frame, and by the time the ninth inning rolled around, the Sox held a comfortable 7-3 lead.
Then all hell broke loose.
With Cliff Politte on in relief of starter Mark Buehrle, the Royals worked a pair of walks to lead off the bottom of the ninth. In his first game as Chicago’s manager, Ozzie Guillen summoned closer Billy Koch to put the finishing touches on this one. But Juan Gonzalez doubled to cut the Sox lead to 7-4 and put runners at second and third. After an Aaron Guiel strikeout for the first out of the inning, Royals manager Tony Pena sent left-handed hitting Matt Stairs to the plate to pinch hit for Tony Graffanino.
In the next move of managerial chess, Guillen went back to his pen for left-handed specialist Damaso Marte. Marte had been outstanding for the Sox in 2003, posting a 1.58 ERA over 79.2 innings while holding batters to a .185 batting average. Pena, not liking the potential lefty vs. lefty matchup, pinch hit for the pinch hitter and and countered with light-hitting Mendy Lopez.
Lopez was an odd choice considering he had a difficult time making contact, not to mention his lack of power. At that point in his career, Lopez was a .255/.301/.367 hitter with five home runs. But on Opening Day, he jumped ahead in the count and somehow hammered a 3-1 pitch over the wall. Home run and a tie ballgame.
Marte, shaken, surrendered a base hit to Angel Berroa, bringing up Carlos Beltran. Beltran was in the final year before testing the free agent market and many were hoping for a big season before he undoubtedly left for a big payday. Batting right handed against Marte, Beltran yanked a fastball over the left field wall to complete the dramatic ninth inning comeback and give the Royals a wild 9-7 win.
The six runs in the Royals' ninth inning represented the largest comeback ever on Opening Day. It also represented the lone bright spot in Kansas City’s season: The Royals would lose a then-club record 104 games. By July, both home run hitters were off the roster, Beltran traded to Houston and Lopez released after he hit .105/.209/.184.
The last shutout(s)
There have been exactly two complete game shutouts on Opening Day in the 21st century.
In his first start after winning Game 7 of the 2001 World Series for the Diamondbacks, Randy Johnson shutout the San Diego Padres on Opening Day 2002. Johnson threw 130 pitches that afternoon, limiting San Diego to six hits while striking out eight and walking one. The Diamondbacks won 2-0, thanks to a Danny Bautista double and a Mark Grace solo home run.
The following year, Johnson was involved in another complete game shutout, but this time he was on the losing end.
With the Diamondbacks hosting the Dodgers, it was Hideo Nomo’s turn to shine. In the 2003 opener, Nomo shut down the Arizona bats behind a solid performance of four hits and one walk while striking out seven in leading the Dodgers to an 8-0 win. He retired the first nine batters he faced.
With no complete game shutouts thrown this year, we’re now at five years and counting.
If we’re going to discuss home runs, what better place to start than pre-humidor Coors Field? On Opening Day 2005, the homers were flying through the Rocky Mountain air.
The Rockies began the barrage with a three-run bomb from Preston Wilson in the bottom of the first. The Padres countered with back-to-back homers from Brian Giles and Phil Nevin in the third to pull within a run. But Jeff Baker grabbed one back for the Rockies with a long ball in the home half of the inning.
Colorado led 7-3 entering the sixth inning, but Xavier Nady followed a leadoff single and a walk with a three-run homer to again cut the lead to one run. The Padres punished the Rockies bullpen by scoring two more times that inning off four pitchers to take the lead for the first time, 8-7.
A Todd Helton single in the bottom of the frame tied the game, but the Padres again jumped ahead behind back-to-back home runs from Ramon Hernandez and Nady in the top of the seventh.
Somehow, there was no scoring in the eighth or in the top of the ninth. The Padres held a 10-8 lead, needing only three outs to win. Closer Trevor Hoffman sandwiched a double between two outs before everything fell apart. A Cory Sullivan double drove in one run and Aaron Miles followed with a single to plate Sullivan with the tying run.
With the game tied at 10, Clint Barmes came to the plate. You know how this one ends.
By the time all the home runs landed, the two teams had combined for a record eight Opening Day home runs—three for the Rockies and five for the Padres.
It’s worth noting that Nady also hit a pair of home runs this year in the Pirates' dramatic 12-11 win over the Braves in the opener. For his career, he has four multi-homer games—and two have come on Opening Day. He's becoming the hitting version of Rick Mahler.
Craig writes about the Royals at Royals Authority. The Royals Authority 2009 Annual, featuring detailed player profiles and a complete look at the minor leagues is now on sale. He welcomes all questions and comments via e-mail. Or just follow him on Twitter.
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