Ranking the 12 Best Opening Day Pitching Performances of All Time
Fans have waited exactly 153 days since Major League Baseball players have taken the field for a meaningful game of baseball. Now, the smell of popcorn, pretzels and pine tar is just two days away as Opening Day lingers on the horizon.
Opening Day traditionally offers a fresh start for starting pitchers who struggled with injury or a general lack of production in the previous season.
In celebration of this day, which many of us fans consider to be that extra holiday in late March, here are the top starting pitching performances of all time.
12. Ron Guidry, New York Yankees
Yankees' ace Ron Guidry.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
A late April 10 start in the 1980 season would not deter Yankees’ ace Ron Guidry from a strong Opening Day outing.
Louisiana Lightning would strike a mediocre Texas Rangers team and prevent them from scoring for all nine innings Guidry was in the game. He administered two hits without walking a batter, striking out four.
The Rangers’ Buddy Bell, who ended the season with a .329 average with 17 home runs and 83 RBI, and Al Oliver, who ended the season with a .319 average, 19 home runs and 117 RBI, would be held hitless with a combined three strikeouts.
However, Guidry would not collect the win as the game would go to the 12th inning, ending in a 1-0 Rangers victory.
11. Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers
Justin Verlander pitching on Opening Day of 2012.
Leon Halip/Getty Images
Justin Verlander made a statement last year on Opening Day with a memorable performance. Verlander’s April 5 outing against the Boston Red Sox would be the appetizer to the Detroit Tigers’ journey to the World Series.
The Red Sox did end the 2012 season with a disappointing 69-93 record mostly due to injury, but remember…this was Opening Day. Their roster still consisted of Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis, both of whom would be traded later in the season, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz.
The collection of All-Stars would not faze Verlander. The Tigers’ ace would go eight innings and surrender just two hits and one walk, striking out seven. The 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young Award Winner would begin right where he left off with an impressive outing.
Surprisingly, Verlander would not pick up the win after closer Jose Valverde gave up two runs in relief, but the outing still goes down as one of the best in history.
10. Pedro Martinez, Boston Red Sox
Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
In 2000, Pedro Martinez was the ace of a Boston Red Sox team during some of the most intense Boston-New York rivalry years on record.
Martinez would begin the season with a bang when he faced the Mariners at the brand-new Safeco Field in Seattle. The Boston ace would have to face a Mariners lineup considered to be one of the most formidable in the history of the franchise.
The lineup featured standout names like John Olerud, a young Alex Rodriguez, Rickey Henderson, Mike Cameron, Jay Buhner, David Bell and Edgar Martinez. At season's end, the Mariners would have five players with over 75 RBI, including three with over 100 RBI.
It was an intimidating roster, but Martinez would deliver. In seven innings pitched, Martinez held the M’s to a remarkable two hits, striking out 11 batters. Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez would go hitless with a strikeout apiece.
It was a stunning performance from Martinez and a notable highlight in a Hall of Fame-worthy career.
9. Randy Johnson, Seattle Mariners
Mariners' ace Randy Johnson.
Jeff Carlick/Getty Images
In 1993, the Toronto Blue Jays were the most well put together team in all of baseball and would follow their 1992 World Series title with yet another championship. But, we’re not talking about the Blue Jays.
The Seattle Mariners’ Randy Johnson would make a mockery of the World Series champions with an Opening Day outing only the best pitcher in baseball could manage.
In eight innings, Johnson allowed one run on seven hits, but it would be his 14 strikeouts that would put him in the Opening Day record books.
World Series hero Joe Carter and Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar collected two hits apiece, but the Big Unit would stifle the rest of the lineup for eight long innings.
The Mariners would go on to win the game 8-1 and Johnson would pick up his first of 19 wins he would collect that season. The Unit would strike out another 14 batters through seven innings three years later on Opening Day.
8. Bert Blyleven, Texas Rangers
Rangers ace Bert Blyleven.
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
On Opening Day April 7, 1977, Texas Rangers ace Bert Blyleven went the extra mile and left an 88-win Baltimore Orioles team out to dry.
In 10 grueling innings, Blyleven allowed just one run on six hits, striking out eight Orioles. Blyleven would leave All-Star Ken Singleton hitless and hold future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray to one hit.
The Rangers would end a team-best second in the AL West with Blyleven posting a 14-12 record with a 2.72 ERA and 182 strikeouts. The Rangers would not make the playoffs for the next 19 years, but Blyleven’s consistent success would land him in the Hall of Fame.
7. Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners
Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez hurling on Opening Day 2007.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
The most impressive Opening Day pitching performance of the last decade came in 2007 when the 20-year-old Felix Hernandez solidified his place as one of the game’s most dominant starters.
It was a musty Seattle afternoon when King Felix took the hill. The Seattle Mariners had high hopes for their young ace, who was fresh off a rather disappointing season in 2006, when he went 12-14 with a 4.52 ERA.
Nevertheless, manager Mike Hargrove stuck with his young gun on Opening Day…and it paid off. King Felix pitched eight innings for the M’s, allowing just three hits and striking out twelve Athletics.
Through minimal offensive support, Hernandez would still manage to finish with a 14-7 record with a 3.92 ERA and 165 strikeouts.
Hernandez would play a pivotal role in the Mariners’ surprising 88-74 finish.
6. Bob Veale, Pittsburgh Pirates
Pirates 1965 ace Bob Veale.
Pittsburgh Pirates ace Bob Veale had one of the best starts of his career on Opening Day of the 1965 season against a 95-win San Francisco Giants squad.
In a proverbial pitcher’s duel, Veale held the Giants to just three hits in 10 innings. The veteran fanned 10 batters and walked just one.
Hall of Famer Willie Mays had just one hit as Veale gave another Hall of Famer, Juan Marichal, his first loss of a season in which he would collect 22 wins.
The Pirates would end up finishing with the third-best record in the National League at 90-72. Veale would also go on to finish with the best season of his career, posting a 17-12 record with a 2.84 ERA.
5. Walter Johnson, Washington Senators
Senators' ace Walter Johnson. (Wikimedia Commons)
The year 1919 featured the best Opening Day pitcher’s duel in baseball history, the Washington Senators’ Walter Johnson would out-pitch the Philadelphia Athletics’ Scott Perry in a 13 inning grudge match that came down to the wire.
In those 13 innings, Johnson allowed 10 hits and three walks while striking out six Athletics. It was an Opening Day for the ages.
While there are no specific statistics about the game, the 10 hits administered by Johnson prove that he had to work his way out of a series of jams.
The Senators would finish the season 56-84, a record that inevitably could have been much worse without the arm of Walter Johnson. The Senators’ ace finished the season with a 20-14 record with a 1.49 ERA, best in baseball, and 147 strikeouts.
4. Walter Johnson, Washington Senators/Eddie Rommel, Philadelphia Athletics
Philadelphia Athletics ace Eddie Rommel. (George Grantham Bain Collection, United States Library of Congress)
Seven seasons after the Opening Day brawl between the Senators and Athletics, Eddie Rommel and Walter Johnson would reopen the history books for two truly unbelievable pitching performances.
For 15 innings, Johnson let up just six hits and three walks, striking out nine Athletics, while Rommel was pulled with one out in inning 15 after he let up the only run of the game on a Joe Harris RBI single.
In 14.1 innings, Rommel let up nine hits and six walks with one strikeout. Rommel’s performance was supplemented by the Athletics defense, which helped the 29-year-old escape from numerous jams.
In retrospect, this could arguably be considered one of the best, most competitive Opening Day baseball games in history on both ends.
3. Don Drysdale, Los Angeles Dodgers
Dodgers' ace Don Drysdale. (LA Times)
Los Angeles Dodgers starter Don Drysdale had a hard-earned Opening Day victory on April 12, 1960, against the Chicago Cubs.
Through eight innings, Cubs ace Bob Anderson was pulled from the game after allowing two runs on five hits, striking out nine Dodgers. On the other side, manager Walter Alston decided to keep his 23-year-old protégée in even with a high pitch count.
Drysdale would deliver, keeping the Cubs lineup at bay. Some notable names in the lineup that day for the Cubs were Hall of Famers Richie Ashburn and Ernie Banks, as well as ex-Yankee coach Don Zimmer, who actually homered off Drysdale in the game.
Through 11 innings, the Dodgers’ ace allowed two runs on seven hits, striking out 14 Cubs on the day. When Drysdale was finally pinch-hit for in the bottom of the 11th, Chuck Essegian came through with a walk-off home run.
The Dodgers ended the season 82-72 and missed the playoffs, but Drysdale would put together a 15-14 record with a 2.84 ERA and a career-high 246 strikeouts.
2. Bob Gibson, St. Louis Cardinals
Statue outside Busch Stadium of Cardinals' ace Bob Gibson.
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Coming off a 21-win season, expectations were high for All-Star and future Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in 1967. On Opening Day, Gibson would live up to the hype in a dominating performance against the Giants.
Gibson would battle a Giants lineup consisting of Hall of Famers Willie McCovey and Willie Mays, holding both legends hitless.
On the day, the Cardinals’ ace threw a complete game, holding the Giants to just five hits with no walks. Gibson also struck out 13 hitters including McCovey three times.
While Gibson’s Opening Day was one for the record books, the 31-year-old Hall of Famer would collect just 13 wins on a Cardinals team that would end the season first in the National League with a record of 101-60.
However, the following year in 1968, Gibson would win the National League MVP and Cy Young Award with a 22-9 record and a microscopic 1.12 ERA.
1. Bob Feller, Cleveland Indians
Indians' ace Bob Feller.
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
On April 16, 1940, Bob Feller did something no other pitcher in history has ever done: throw a no-hitter on the first day of the season.
The Cleveland Indians took on the Chicago White Sox in a game no fan would ever forget.
Feller’s counterpart, White Sox ace Eddie Smith, pitched phenomenally, allowing just one run on six hits in eight innings. Nevertheless, a lineup led by Hall of Famer Luke Appling could not touch the blistering fastball of Bob Feller.
Feller ended the day walking five batters, but he would pencil his name into the record books with the only no-hitter in Opening Day history.
Opening Day would be a precursor to the astronomical season Feller would have. The 21-year-old posted a ridiculous 27-11 record with 261 strikeouts and a league-best 2.61 ERA. He would finish second in the MVP voting to Cincinnati’s Frank McCormick and take home the pitching Triple Crown.
Cleveland finished second in the American League with an 89-65 record.
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