Best and Worst of MLB Opening Day 2013

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2013

Best and Worst of MLB Opening Day 2013

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    Opening Day in Major League Baseball means a lot of things to many people. But the one thing that we can agree on is having this game back for the next seven months is truly special. 

    While not every team got to show off what they can do on Monday—even Texas and Houston decided to get a jump on the competition by starting on Sunday—there were 24 teams who kicked off their season for a very memorable first full day of the 2013 season. 

    Some players and teams made the most of this stage, while others got off to a shaky start. Even if it wasn't what you wanted to see, it is important to remember that there are still 161 games to play. 

    The magic of baseball is that one bad game doesn't destroy you. Conversely, one great game doesn't turn everything around—even if some people are making MVP declarations after what we just saw. 

    Here are the best and worst moments from the start of the 2013 Major League Baseball season. 

Best: Bryce Harper Has a Future in This Game

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    Before the season started, you likely read a lot of preseason prognostications that had Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper as a serious contender for the National League MVP award.

    Those of you who dismissed it as foolish overblown hype for a 20-year-old kid still learning the game, I present you with Harper's Opening Day against the Miami Marlins. 

    Well, mostly his first two at-bats. In the bottom of the first inning, Harper stepped up to the plate against Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco and proceeded to hit a line drive to right field that just cleared the fence to give the Nationals a 1-0 lead. 

    No big deal. Harper can drive balls out to any part of the park because he has so much power in that violent-but-controlled swing. 

    Then Harper came up to bat against Nolasco again in the fourth inning. The prodigal son got a hold of another Nolasco pitch and launched it deep into the Washington sky to give the home team the 2-0 lead. 

    According to ESPN Stats & Info, Harper made history at the age of 20 by hitting those two home runs for the Nationals. 

    Harper is the youngest player in the live-ball era with a 2-HR performance in his team's first game

    — ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 1, 2013

    Oh, and by the way, his team won the game 2-0. 

Worst: Washington Is Still Very Conservative with Its Best Pitcher

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    All in all, it was a good day for Stephen Strasburg (7.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 3 K).

    After giving up a leadoff hit to Juan Pierre in the first inning, he retired the next 19 hitters before Giancarlo Stanton hit a one-out double in the top of the seventh inning. 

    The young ace got the win and was actually trying to let the natural movement on his pitches carry him—not simply trying strike every hitter out. It worked to perfection, as he threw just 80 pitches through seven innings and never really got in any trouble. 

    Then Davey Johnson decided to take his starter out after just 80 pitches and turn things over to his bullpen in a 2-0 game. 

    Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano went two scoreless innings to preserve the win, but this was an odd decision by the Nats manager.

    It is easy to understand not wanting to burn Strasburg out if he is struggling—which was clearly not the case here. It is even easy to justify taking him out after seven innings in the season opener with the luxury of a deeper bullpen this year.

    But this came off as yet another sign that the organization doesn't really trust Strasburg to do what he is clearly capable of doing unencumbered.

    Johnson said after the game (via Bill Ladson, MLB.com) that, on most days, he would have left his star pitcher out there: "Any other day, I would have gone further with him, but with the adrenaline going on Opening Day, he could have been a little spent."

    Strasburg was quick to agree with his manager, saying if this wasn't his first start of the year that "it would have been a different story."

    As logical as that sounds, you can understand where the skepticism comes from given what we saw last year. There are few pitchers in the game who can do the kind of things Stephen Strasburg can do. But in order for him to fully blossom, he has to be free to fly.

    Protecting your best pitcher is one thing; babying is another. 

Best: Jackie Bradley Jr.'s Debut Yields Immediate Results

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    Jackie Bradley Jr. was under the microscope in his major league debut. 

    Any time you play for the Boston Red Sox, the scrutiny is going to be a challenge. Even if you are a rookie, media and fans are not going to have any patience—the spotlight there can be crippling for a player. 

    That goes double when you are a Red Sox player making your debut against the archrival New York Yankees. If the Red Sox do nothing the rest of the year, as long as they beat the Yankees in a season series, all is forgiven. 

    Bradley came out of the gate with a strong performance that was everything you could have expected from him, especially if you had seen him play at his peak in college or last season in the minors. Without recording a hit, the young left fielder impacted the game in many ways. 

    In his first at-bat against CC Sabathia in the second inning, Bradley got down 0-2 before working a seven-pitch walk. Not only did he make the Yankees ace work, but the Red Sox wound up scoring three runs in the inning. 

    Bradley would finish the game 0-for-2 with three walks, two runs and one strikeout. Peter Gammons of the MLB Network noted that Bradley's walk total already matches that of his predecessor in left after his 31 games last season. 

    Jackie Bradley, Jr. has as many walks(3) as Carl Crawford had last season.

    — Peter Gammons (@pgammo) April 1, 2013

    The hits will come, but Bradley's approach at the plate, as well as stellar defense (though he should eventually move to his natural center field position), are what pushed him on the big league roster despite the incredibly abbreviated stay in the minors.

Worst: CC Sabathia Causes the Panic Meter in NY to Reach 11

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    The Yankees are going to have to tread water for at least the first month of the season until some of their injured players make their way back to the lineup. At least they have CC Sabathia at the top of the rotation to calm their nerves. 

    Or not. 

    Against Boston, Sabathia really struggled to find himself and lasted just five innings. His final line was five innings, eight hits, five strikeouts, four runs and four walks. He needed 102 pitches to get through the five innings. 

    With the Yankees already feeling the heat after losing Nick Swisher, Raul Ibanez, Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones in the offseason, as well as Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Phil Hughes to injuries, this was not what they needed to see from their best starting pitcher. 

    But the news is not all bad. In 10 career Opening Day starts, Sabathia has rarely pitched well. His ERA in those games is 5.88, and his teams have won just three of those 10 games. 

    However, when you factor in the way Sabathia looked in his final start last year against Detroit in Game 4 of the ALCS, you can feel New York wanting to start throwing trash at this team. 

    Let's give the Yankees a little time before we completely write them off. Sabathia will be fine and the injured stars will return. Even if I don't think they are a playoff team this year, one bad day does not make a season. 

Best: Collin Cowgill Is the King of Queens

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    As much as baseball fans love Opening Day, no one was talking about what was going on in Queens between the San Diego Padres and New York Mets.

    It's easy to see why, when you have Stephen Strasburg pitching for Washington, the Yankees-Red Sox matchup, and so many other big storylines to watch. 

    A funny thing happened along the way: Mets center fielder Collin Cowgill gave us reason to pay attention with a grand slam in the seventh inning to crack the game wide open at 11-2. He wasn't alone, as six of his teammates also drove in runs in the victory. 

    This is not going to be an easy season for the Mets. Johan Santana is already out for the season. R.A. Dickey was traded to Toronto. The outfield situation is a mess (though Cowgill at least provided a one-day reprieve). 

    Playing in New York, it takes a lot to get lost in the shuffle. The Mets did with so many other things going on this Opening Day. But at least for one day, this team gave the fans in Queens something to smile about. 

Worst: San Diego's Offense Without Chase Headley

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    San Diego doesn't have a good offense, even at full strength. As great as Chase Headley was last season, the Padres still finished 24th in runs scored. It also doesn't help that they had to open the season in spacious Citi Field.

    Really, Monday afternoon was just a perfect storm of events that showed all the problems the Padres have right now. Even without a lot of offense, Edinson Volquez still has no idea where the ball is going when it leaves his hands. He gave up six runs in just three innings. 

    But getting back to this offense...it is not going to be pretty to watch. Yonder Alonso did provide some punch with a home run in the sixth inning, though that just made it a 7-1 game in the Mets' favor. Rookie Jedd Gyorko, who started in Headley's spot at third base, added a double. 

    On the whole, however, the Padres did nothing. And it wasn't like they were facing an untouchable starter in Jonathon Niese.

    You can never really count the Padres out because their pitching will always have an advantage thanks to Petco Park. It would just be nice to see more players in the lineup step up to make this offense watchable. 

Best: AL Central Aces, Except the One You Are Thinking Of

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    When it comes to the American League Central in 2013, everything starts and stops with the Detroit Tigers. 

    Sure, Cleveland and Kansas City made moves to improve their teams as well, but overall, no one else in the division can match what the Tigers have going on offense and in the starting rotation. 

    Yet for one day at least, Kansas City and Chicago were able to stick their necks out as if to tell the world they still exist. Those two teams met in a great pitchers' duel at U.S. Cellular Field, with James Shields making his Royals debut against Chris Sale. 

    Those two starters combined to throw 13.2 innings, giving up just one run on 15 hits, striking out 13 and walking one. Shields and Sale were magnificent and provided everything their respective managers could have hoped for. 

    The White Sox got a 1-0 victory thanks to a Tyler Flowers homer off Shields in the fifth. Even in defeat, the Royals have to feel much better about their starting pitching this year. Remember, last year this was a team that finished 26th in starters' ERA (5.01). 

    Who knows whether Shields and Sale are really that good or if the two offenses were/are just that bad. Considering the track record of the two starters, you would have to say it is the former. 

    But on this day, at least there were some other starting pitchers in the AL Central we are able to talk about. Which leads us to...

Worst: Justin Verlander Throws a Lot of Pitches

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    When you are going to a baseball game, especially on Opening Day when you know you will see the best starting pitcher a team has to offer, you hope to see the best possible effort from said pitcher. 

    If you were in Minnesota Monday, you had the opportunity to see Justin Verlander, the best pitcher in baseball today with the contract to prove it, take the mound against the Twins. Unfortunately, you did not get to see him at his best. 

    Sure, Verlander pitched well while he was in. He went five shutout innings, giving up no runs, three hits, walking two and striking out seven. But it took him 91 pitches to get through those five innings before manager Jim Leyland pulled him. 

    It is early in the season and cold in Minnesota, so you know why Verlander wasn't overextended in this game. 

    But to get just five innings of work out of Verlander against the Twins, who do have players capable of working a count (most notably, Joe Mauer), has to feel like a letdown. We know what he is able to do at his peak, so this was hardly the worst outing possible. 

    You just hoped to see more from Verlander, instead of this incredible pitcher struggling to get through five innings because he is throwing a lot of pitches per inning. 

Best: Clayton Kershaw Laughs All the Way to the Bank

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    After the Tigers inked Justin Verlander to his new deal just before the start of the season, all eyes turned to Los Angeles and Clayton Kershaw. We know the Dodgers can and will spend money like it's going out of style. 

    If Monday night (and the last four years of his career) is any indication, Kershaw is going to make the Dodgers give up a lot of coin to keep him in Los Angeles for the rest of his career. 

    Taking on the defending World Series champions and archrival San Francisco Giants, Kershaw took the mound against Matt Cain and was nothing short of brilliant.

    The 2011 National League Cy Young winner pitched a complete-game shutout, throwing just 94 pitches (65 strikes) and allowing four hits with seven strikeouts. Cain matched him pitch for pitch before being taken out after six innings. 

    That set the stage for the real fireworks that Kershaw would provide in the eighth inning. With no score and George Kontos on the mound in the bottom of the inning, Kershaw led things off with his first career home run. It wasn't a cheap one, as he hit it out to center field. 

    The Dodgers would go on to score three more runs in the inning, but this was Kershaw's game in every possible way. ESPN's Molly Knight summed up what the young star's efforts meant for his potential market value to his current employers:

    I expect to see a giant cardboard check for $300 million waiting for Kershaw at his locker after the game.

    — Molly Knight (@molly_knight) April 1, 2013

    With a pitcher as good as Clayton Kershaw, this could be the beginning of something huge. 

Worst: Bullpen Situation in Colorado and Milwaukee

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    If someone would have told you before today that Colorado Rockies starter Jhoulys Chacin would go 6.2 innings, give up just one run on three hits, three walks and strike out six, you would be thrilled if you were a Rockies fan. 

    That is exactly what the young right-hander did against Milwaukee, leaving the game with a 3-1 lead. But that is when everything unravelled, thanks in large part to Wilton Lopez. 

    Lopez came in for the eighth, trying to preserve the lead. He would leave the game three outs later, having given up three runs on four hits to give the Brewers a 4-3 lead. 

    With momentum in their corner, the Brewers turned to John Axford to close the game. The same closer who had a 4.67 ERA and allowed 100 baserunners and 10 home runs in 69.1 innings last season. But hey, Axford has the "proven closer" label, so he's solid gold, right?

    Axford did strike out the side in the ninth inning but not before giving up a home run to Dexter Fowler that tied the game. Colorado brought in Adam Ottavino in the bottom of the 10th, who gave up two walks and a sacrifice fly to Jonathan Lucroy to give the Brewers the 5-4 victory. 

    With both starting rotations for these teams having serious question marks entering the year, the last thing they needed was to see their bullpens struggle right out of the gate. 

Best: Atlanta's Powerful New Lineup

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    The common thinking about the Atlanta Braves' new-look lineup, which includes Justin Upton and B.J. Upton, is it will provide a lot of pop and strike out a ton. 

    Well, after the first game, you saw the best and worst of what this Braves team can do in 2013 when firing on all cylinders. In a 7-5 victory over Philadelphia, they did exactly what we thought they could and offered a glimpse of what was to come. 

    The Braves hit three home runs in the game, coming off the bats of Freddie Freeman, Dan Uggla and Justin Upton. The former set the tone for the game, giving Tim Hudson a 2-0 lead.

    Upton, still a player loaded with incredible talent even after having a down season in Arizona last year, provided the knockout blow in the fifth inning with a bomb hit to left field against Cole Hamels that gave Atlanta a 5-3 lead. 

    All told, the Braves had six extra-base hits, but they also had eight strikeouts against the Phillies pitching. Even though this lineup will pile up the strikeouts, it is also going to be one of the most powerful in the National League. 

Worst: Cole Hamels Gets Whiplash After Giving Up 3 Home Runs

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    Cole Hamels would rather just put this one behind him and move on to his next start against Kansas City this weekend. Handed the ball for his first Opening Day start of his career, Hamels gave up five runs on seven hits (three home runs) and one walk on 89 pitches in just five innings.

    This is going to be a trying season for the Phillies. The top of their rotation with Hamels and Cliff Lee should be outstanding. Roy Halladay remains a question mark until we see how he adapts without as much zip on his fastball—or if the velocity comes back as the season moves along. 

    But the lineup needs Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Domonic Brown to be at the top of their games in order to compete with the Braves and Nationals in the division. 

    Hamels has had issue keeping the ball in the park throughout his career. He relies so much on his changeup, and if he leaves it up, hitters can send it a long way. That is exactly what happened against Atlanta on Monday. 

Best: Chase Utley at Full Strength

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    There are some players who you can say, without hesitation, simply make the game of baseball better and more enjoyable when they are playing at full strength. 

    Chase Utley used to be one of those players, as he was one of the premiere second baseman in baseball the latter half of last decade. He averaged 29 home runs, 39 doubles, 15 stolen bases and had an OPS over .900 each year from 2005-09.

    Injuries have taken their toll on Utley, as he played in just 301 games over the last three seasons and had to battle just to get back on the field due to chronic pain in his arthritic right knee

    At least for one day Monday, Utley looked like the star player of the past. He went 3-for-5 with a two-run home run to dead center field, a single and, perhaps most impressively, legged out a triple on a ball hit to right.

    Who knows what Utley is going to do the rest of the season, or if he will even be able to play in 140 games for the first time since the Phillies' 2009 World Series run. But we all got a glimpse of what Utley can still be if he is able to stay on the field, and it is still really, really good. 

Worst: Ice-Cold Bats in Cincinnati

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    Going back to what we said about James Shields and Chris Sale, you hesitate to give too much credit to pitchers. We cannot be sure where the hitting is at the moment. Even after a long spring training, it takes time to get your legs under you in games that matter. 

    Never does that appear to be more apparent than in Cincinnati, where the Reds hosted the Los Angeles Angels in a game between two of the most exciting offensive teams in baseball. 

    You had Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Mark Trumbo, Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce all on the same field. Yet somehow, Chris Iannetta winds up being the hero, driving in all three runs the Angels would score in a game that took 13 innings to complete. 

    In fact, the nine players listed above, excluding Iannetta, combined to go 4-for-36 with 13 strikeouts, seven walks, one double and zero RBI. 

    They won't all be like this; we know that. These two teams are far too talented, as are the players listed. It also doesn't help they were facing Jered Weaver and Johnny Cueto, two of the better pitchers in their respective league, at the start of the game. 

    But for this game to go 13 innings and only end because Chris Iannetta hit a two-run single does not speak well for either team's offense at this stage.

Best: Major League Baseball

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    If you follow baseball, then you know the drill. Once October ends, there is a long, excruciating wait for games to start again. There are some things thrown in to keep it in our social conscience—awards voting, speculation and rumors, free agency, trades, etc. 

    But this offseason seemed to be one that was all doom and gloom right from the start. Everyone wanted to talk about what the New York Yankees were going to do with Alex Rodriguez, who is always a lightning rod for conversation, after his disastrous playoff run and subsequent hip surgery

    While there were some big stories to throw in around December when we got to the winter meetings, like Josh Hamilton signing with the Angels and Zack Greinke with the Dodgers, things got dark once again after the first of the year. 

    On Jan. 31, the Miami New Times ran a story about a Biogenesis clinic in Miami that allegedly supplied steroids and performance-enhancing drugs to many athletes, including Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Melky Cabrera and Gio Gonzalez. 

    The public and media reaction was negative, as you would expect. But now that we have games to analyze, players to talk about and so much more to come, we can all direct our attention to the actual season.

     

    For more Opening Day analysis, and all of the days ahead in Major League Baseball this season, be sure to check me out on Twitter.