It's the most wonderful time of the year, as Opening Day for the 2013 MLB season has arrived. And with it came everything that makes baseball great.
From extra-inning affairs to lopsided victories, from dominating pitching performances to power from unlikely sources, Opening Day had something for everyone.
Now, I can't say this any clearer than this: It is too early to be buying World Series tickets, and it's too early to panic. It's only the first game—we have 161 more to go.
Yet, as with every baseball game—with the exception of the 2002 All-Star Game—there's a winner and a loser.
Let's take a look at the biggest winners and losers from the start of the 2013 season.
There was no better way to firmly cement the chaos that has surrounded the Boston Red Sox for more than a year than by beating their hated nemeses, the New York Yankees, in front of a packed house at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day.
That the beleaguered ace of the pitching staff, Jon Lester, carried his blazing spring training form into the regular-season opener was even better.
Lester, who allowed just two earned runs and eight hits in 24 innings this spring, stymied an injury-depleted Yankees lineup for most of the afternoon, allowing a pair of runs on Francisco Cervelli's single to left field in the fourth inning with the bases loaded.
Last year, Lester would have allowed far more than that to score in the inning. He finished the day allowing five hits over five innings of work, walking two and striking out seven.
Not to be outdone, Boston's offense hit Yankees ace CC Sabathia hard, with five different players picking up at least one RBI on the day, led by Shane Victorino's three.
Perhaps things aren't going to be as bad as some believe they will be in Beantown this season.
Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run shot off Pirates starter A.J. Burnett to give the Chicago Cubs a 2-0 first0inning lead that the team would never surrender, thanks to the masterful outing by Jeff Samardzija, making his first career Opening Day start:
Jeff Samardzija: 1st pitcher with 8+ scoreless IP, 2 H or fewer and 9+ K on Opening Day since Curt Schilling in 1998— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 1, 2013
Chicago's 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh marks the first time since 2009 that the Cubs have won their season opener. That it came at the hands of a starting pitcher who went 2-1 with a 1.40 ERA and 1.03 WHIP against them in 2012 makes the victory all the more encouraging and satisfying.
Make no mistake about it—the 2013 season is going to be a very long one in Houston, and there's a better chance of the team losing 100 games than the team posting a .500 record.
But, in the team's first game as a member of the American League, against their in-state rivals, the Texas Rangers, you couldn't have asked for a better outcome for the squad.
Starter Bud Norris kept a dangerous Texas lineup at bay, scattering five hits and two earned runs over nearly six innings of work as the Astros won convincingly by a score of 8-2 Sunday night in Houston.
Outfielders Rick Ankiel and Justin Maxwell, castoffs from other big league clubs, went a combined 3-for-5 with three runs scored, five RBI, a double and a home run.
And, perhaps most impressively, rookie skipper Bo Porter found a use for Erik Bedard, using him as an old-school closer, as the veteran threw 3.1 innings of one-hit ball to pick up the first save of his career.
Wins like this are going to be few and far between this season, Houston fans, so you should really enjoy them when given the chance.
In the wee hours of Opening Day, well before a pitch had been thrown, I wrote the following about Clayton Kershaw as it pertained to his chances of winning the second Cy Young Award of his young career: "It really doesn't matter whether the collection of All-Stars that Los Angeles has assembled hits or not, Kershaw will dominate the opposition regardless of the run support he receives."
Apparently, I'm clairvoyant, because Kershaw did just that against the defending World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants, becoming the first pitcher in 60 years to accomplish quite the rare feat:
Clayton Kershaw: 1st pitcher to hit HR AND pitch shutout on Opening Day since Hall of Famer Bob Lemon, 1953 Indians— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 1, 2013
It wasn't merely a shutout, but a complete-game shutout that saw Kershaw allow only four hits (two on infield singles) while walking nobody and striking out seven.
Kershaw wasn't alone in his contributions to the Dodgers offense, as four other Dodgers would record hits, including a pair each from Carl Crawford (2-for-4 with a run scored) and Mark Ellis (2-for-3 with a run scored).
You couldn't have asked for a better start from the Dodgers, who are under enormous pressure to win big in 2013.
Milwaukee battled back from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the eighth to take a 4-3 lead over the Colorado Rockies and eventually won, 5-4, in 10 innings. So I can't technically call the Brewers losers here.
But thanks to closer John Axford, Milwaukee almost did lose.
One of the only remaining members of a bullpen that ranked last in MLB last season with a 4.66 ERA, Axford served up a game-tying home run to Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler with two outs in the top of the ninth inning.
That Axford failed to record the save erases all the goodwill and optimism that Brewers fans may have had for the team's revamped bullpen heading into the season.
Until Axford shows that he's able to close games out consistently, there's going to be an uneasy feeling around the team when it heads into the ninth inning with a lead—and the opposition will never believe that they are truly out of it.
It's OK to breathe, Mets fans, as neither New York's 11-2 Opening Day victory over the San Diego Padres nor this tweet from ESPN's Adam Rubin is some sort of cruel April Fool's joke:
Collin Cowgill is the first player with a grand slam in his #Mets debut in franchise history.— Adam Rubin (@AdamRubinESPN) April 1, 2013
Cowgill and Marlon Byrd combined to go 4-for-10 with three runs scored and six RBI, at least temporarily putting to rest New York's outfield-hitting fears.
Even first baseman Ike Davis, hitless in five at-bats and with four strikeouts on the day, had productive plate appearances, seeing a game-high 31 pitches. He was one of three Mets (along with Byrd and John Buck) to see more than 20 pitches from San Diego pitching.
Jon Niese pitched like the dark-horse/long-shot Cy Young Award contender I said he'd be this year, scattering four hits and two earned runs over 6.2 innings of work, walking a pair and striking out four.
That the New York Yankees managed only two runs and six hits against the Boston Red Sox wasn't entirely unexpected, given that nearly half of the team's starting lineup began the season on the disabled list.
But against a Red Sox team without David Ortiz in the lineup, the Yankees expected a strong showing out of CC Sabathia, despite his traditionally slow starts. In four previous Opening Day starts for the Yankees, Sabathia has allowed five earned runs or more three times, all resulting in losses.
Sabathia got hit hard once again, surrendering eight hits and five earned runs over five innings of work.
More concerning for the Yankees should be this tidbit from the YES Network's Jack Curry:
Sabathia's best FB was 91. He avg 87-90. He got 3 of 5 strikeouts on changeups. CC dismissed questions about velocity.— Jack Curry (@JackCurryYES) April 1, 2013
Sabathia made only two starts this spring as he recovered from offseason elbow surgery, so perhaps this was merely a sign that the big man needs more work before he's rounded into form (no pun intended).
But the lack of velocity is something to keep an eye on. The last thing the Yankees can afford is to be without the workhorse of the rotation for any period of time, and a continued lack of velocity would seem to indicate that something isn't quite right.
It shouldn't be surprising that Edinson Volquez struggled badly in San Diego's first road game of the season—an 11-2 drubbing at the hands of the New York Mets—as we looked at the Padres ace and his struggles away from Petco Park earlier this year.
His home and away splits from 2012 don't lie: a 2.95 ERA and 1.29 WHIP at Petco Park, an ERA of 5.60 and a 1.65 WHIP on the road.
Volquez needed 79 pitches to get through only three innings, allowing six hits and six earned runs, walking three and striking out four.
Despite his penchant for inconsistency and an overall lack of command of his arsenal, Volquez does know how to make batters swing and miss.
That said, if Volquez is as good as it gets in San Diego, then the Padres are in for a very long season—especially seeing as how they play in an NL West that features far more explosive lineups than the one faced at Citi Field Monday afternoon.
In retrospect, perhaps not making a strong push to sign Kyle Lohse in free agency was a mistake after all for the Texas Rangers.
The team was embarrassed in its six-run loss to the Houston Astros. Matt Harrison, who got the Opening Day nod over Yu Darvish, wasn't a complete bust, as he managed to pick up nine strikeouts in 5.2 innings of work. But he was far from sharp, allowing six hits and five earned runs while issuing three walks.
For all the criticism that the Rangers have dealt with coming into the season, from the team's inability to land a front-of-the-rotation starter to Josh Hamilton walking away via free agency yet staying in the division with the Los Angeles Angels, losing to a team that is expected to lose more than 100 games was just about the last thing that the Rangers needed to start the season.
Of all the preseason award picks made by B/R's panel of experts (and expertly analyzed and broken down by Ely Sussman), the choice of Bryce Harper for National League MVP seemed to get the harshest reaction from readers.
Well, so far, so good, for both the Nats and the panel, as Harper set a new MLB record on his first career Opening Day, a 2-0 Washington victory over the hapless Miami Marlins:
FACT: Bryce Harper (At 20 years, 167 days old) is youngest Major Leaguer to homer twice in his team's opening game of the season.
— MLB (@MLB) April 1, 2013
Stephen Strasburg looked sharp, throwing 52 of his 80 pitches for strikes and scattering three hits over seven scoreless innings, striking out three. Miami's pitchers were up to the task as well (aside from Harper's two at-bats), as Ricky Nolasco, Chad Qualls and Mike Dunn allowed only five hits on the afternoon.
If Washington is able to win games when only one of its big bats is producing, things are only going to get better as the rest of the team's lineup rounds into form.