All of the Best Moments, Plays of MLB Opening Day 2014

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2014

All of the Best Moments, Plays of MLB Opening Day 2014

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    Keith Srakocic

    Opening Day in Major League Baseball brings with it a special, unique feeling for everyone. It can be the unofficial start of spring, or that surge of optimism that comes with the first pitch, or the nostalgia of watching games as a kid. 

    Whatever the reasons for loving baseball, Opening Day 2014 was a treat. There were momentous returns, pregame ceremonies, walk-off hits, offensive slugfests and pitching masterpieces. 

    Oh yeah, there was also the debut of MLB's new challenge system. Despite some concerns that it would slow down the pace of games, umpires were able to make the correct call in less than two minutes. 

    All of that happened, and there are still 161 games to go. To put a final period on what was an eventful Opening Day, here is a look at the top moments and plays that made Monday so special.

Ralph Kiner Honored in New York and Pittsburgh

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    The role of the announcer, either on television or on radio, in Major League Baseball is unlike any other sport because there's an intimate feeling to the game and there's so much time in between pitches that stories from past years come out. 

    For fans of the New York Mets, Ralph Kiner was the voice of many generations. He started broadcasting games for the team in its expansion season (1962) and continued working games through 2013. 

    Kiner passed away in February at the age of 91, leaving a void for anyone who grew up watching Mets games. He was to the Mets what Vin Scully is to the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

    In fact, Kiner's 53-year stint with the Mets was the third-longest streak in baseball for an active broadcaster with one team behind Scully and Jaime Jarrin, who is the Dodgers' Spanish-language announcer. 

    The Mets honored Kiner with a ceremony before the start of their game against the Washington Nationals. It's not something that will get a lot of national publicity, but it does deserve mention here because of the relationship fans establish with broadcasters over the years. 

    Kiner was also honored in Pittsburgh, where he played the first 7.5 years of his career, before the Pirates' game against Chicago. 

Replay, Version 1.0

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    Depending on who you follow on Twitter, the first use of expanded replay in 2014 was either in Pittsburgh between the Cubs and Pirates or Milwaukee between the Braves and Brewers. 

    Since the first replay listed on the MLB Instant Replay Twitter account is the one between the Cubs and Pirates, that's what we will go with.  

    There was no real drama around the play, with Jeff Samardzija being thrown out at first base on a bang-bang call. 

    Cubs manager Rick Renteria, searching for a lifeline after his team went 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position against the Pirates, went to the umpires to challenge the call. They went to the gate and put on a pair of headphones to get the call from replay headquarters in New York. 

    About 90 seconds after Renteria challenged the call, the final decision was made that Samardzija was, in fact, out at first. It won't go down in the history books as a controversial play that will change the course of the 2014 season, but it illustrated just how simple this new process is going to be.

Replay, Version 2.0

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    If we are going to talk about replay, it's only fair that we mention the calls that the umpires didn't get right. 

    The first overturned call under the expanded-replay system happened in the bottom of the sixth inning of the Brewers-Braves game when Milwaukee's Ryan Braun hit a little dribbler down the third-base line and was called safe on a close play at first base. 

    Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez immediately came out of the dugout to challenge the call. Once again, the umpires just walked over to their headphones to communicate with headquarters, got word that Braun was actually out and made the right call. 

    See what Major League Baseball was missing after all of those years of not having replay? For all of commissioner Bud Selig's concerns that replay would slow the game down and take away from the human element, the umpires got the call correct in less than two minutes. 

    That's all anyone can ask of the umpires and Major League Baseball.

Jimmy Rollins Slams His Way into Philadelphia's Heart, Again

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    ESPN's Buster Olney reported on March 18 that the Phillies felt they would be better off trading Jimmy Rollins.

    That news came days after Jim Salisbury of Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia implied that there may be some tension between Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg and Rollins, as the former NL MVP was left out of the lineup during spring games more often than normal. 

    Whatever tension there might have been in the locker room during spring training appears to be resolved now, or at least it was for one day. Rollins made his 200th career home run memorable, blasting a grand slam against Texas Rangers starter Tanner Scheppers to give Philadelphia a 6-0 lead. 

    Of course, runs were like chocolate eggs on Easter in this game. The Rangers stormed back to take a 7-6 lead in the third inning against Cliff Lee, but the Phillies kept piling on the offense and would pull out a 14-10 win. 

    It wasn't the prettiest game of the day, but it did have a nice throwback feel to it. In an era where 1-0 and 3-2 games are commonplace, it's nice to be reminded how much fun a slugfest can be.

Yadier Molina Shows Off the Baseball IQ

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    One term you often hear about in scouting circles is baseball IQ. It can mean different things to different people, but the general idea is that the player has an innate sense of everything happening around him and what the situation calls for. 

    Baseball IQ is impossible to measure, but you know it when you see it. Yadier Molina has proven himself to be the smartest baseball player on the planet time and again, recognizing situations and always making the right decisions for his team. 

    Take, for instance, Molina's heads-up play against the Cincinnati Reds. Joey Votto hit a ball that bounced in the right-handed batter's box in foul territory, so he didn't run out of the box. The ball was trickling forward, so Molina waited for it to roll far enough to be called fair. 

    Brandon Phillips was on first base, so Molina fired the ball to second base to get one out, and shortstop Jhonny Peralta threw to first base to get Votto out and complete the double play. It's not something you can put in the box score, but it speaks to how well Molina understands the game. 

    Oh yeah, Molina also hit what turned out to be the game-winning home run in the top of the seventh inning in the St. Louis Cardinals' 1-0 victory.

Grady Sizemore Is Back, Seriously

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    Whether you love a team or not, there are certain players who are hard to root against. Grady Sizemore certainly falls into that category. 

    There was a time, from 2005-08, when Sizemore was one of the best baseball players on the planet. He was to that particular era of baseball what Andrew McCutchen is now.

    If you think that's an exaggeration, Sizemore's four-year WAR total from 2005-08 was 26.8, fourth most in the majors, per FanGraphs. McCutchen's four-year WAR total from 2010-13 was 23.8, fourth most in the majors.

    Unlike McCutchen, who is still going strong after an MVP season in 2013, Sizemore's career fell apart quickly. He played just 210 games from 2009-11, hadn't homered in an MLB game since July 15, 2011, and hadn't played in an MLB game since Sept. 22, 2011. 

    All of that made it strange when the Boston Red Sox signed Sizemore to a one-year contract in January with a guaranteed 40-man roster spot, then it got stranger when the 31-year-old made the Opening Day roster out of spring training. 

    Sure enough, Sizemore rewarded Boston's faith in him by providing the only offense the team would have against the Baltimore Orioles in a 2-1 loss. He went 2-for-4 with a solo home run off Chris Tillman in the fourth inning. 

    Sizemore told reporters after the game that Monday "was very exciting. I couldn't wait to get to the ballpark."

    It's best to keep expectations low, but at least for one day Sizemore reminded the world why he used to be a star. 

Ryan Braun Is Back, and Milwaukee Couldn't Be Happier

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    There was a lot of uncertainty surrounding Ryan Braun's first regular-season game following the 65-game suspension that ended his 2013 season on July 21. 

    Would Braun be the player he used to be, the guy who won the 2011 NL MVP and finished second in 2012? How would the fans in Milwaukee react to their fallen idol? 

    We will have to wait a while to figure out the answer to question No. 1, but Milwaukee answered question No. 2 in resounding fashion, as you can hear in the video. 

    Not everyone was happy with the reaction to Braun's return by Brewers fans, specifically members of the media. Craig Calcaterra of HardballTalk posted some of the backlash from Twitter, like sage wizard Bill Plaschke saying, "to the cheater goes the spoils."

    To anyone in the media not happy about Milwaukee cheering Braun, I say this: Sit down, shut up and get off your high horse. 

    Did Braun take performance-enhancing drugs? Yes. Did he lie about it? Yes. Was he a saint throughout this process? Of course not.

    Braun took his punishment, which was handed down by Major League Baseball, and is ready to play again. Why wouldn't Milwaukee cheer him? It's no different than the Giants cheering Barry Bonds when the rest of the world was against him; he's their player. 

    Now can we please start talking about Ryan Braun, the baseball player, again? He used to be a lot of fun to watch.

Pittsburgh's MVP Trio Together

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    In 2013, Andrew McCutchen became the first Pittsburgh Pirates player to win the National League MVP award since Barry Bonds in 1992. 

    It was only fitting, then, that Bonds and 1960 NL MVP Dick Groat were on hand to present McCutchen with his MVP and Silver Slugger trophies before the Pirates' game against the Chicago Cubs. 

    Of course, whenever Bonds is around, there is always going to be an air of controversy and unease because of the attention he commands for a variety of reasons. It seemed like his presence could overshadow what was supposed to be McCutchen's shining moment. 

    With the exception of some boos in the crowd, however, Bonds didn't take away from McCutchen at all. It's also easy to forget how important Bonds was to the Pirates because he's mostly associated with San Francisco after spending 15 years with the Giants. 

    But the Pirates were a force to be reckoned with in Bonds' final three seasons with the team (1990-92), making it to the National League Championship Series each year and losing in seven games the last two years. 

    It was nice to see the Pirates remember their past with Groat and Bonds while embracing their present and future with McCutchen.

If a Walk-Off Single Is Good...

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    Think about the spring that Alex Gonzalez had prior to Opening Day. He went from being a non-roster invitee for the Baltimore Orioles to getting traded to the Detroit Tigers as the replacement for starting shortstop Jose Iglesias. 

    Gonzalez, once a fantastic defensive shortstop who played on Florida's 2003 championship team, appeared in just 41 games for the Brewers in 2013 and hit .177/.203/.230 in 118 plate appearances. 

    Yet here he is, at 37 years old, starting for a Tigers team that has very real championship aspirations. 

    If that's not enough, Gonzalez got the chance to play hero against the Kansas City Royals. With runners on first and third with one out in the bottom of the ninth of a 3-3 game, he ripped a single to left field that scored Tyler Collins. 

    It was the first walk-off hit of the season, but it wouldn't be the last of Opening Day.

...A Walk-Off Home Run Is Great

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    The second walk-off hit of the day was courtesy of last year's darlings, the Pittsburgh Pirates, in what turned out to be a pitcher's duel between Chicago Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija and Francisco Liriano. 

    Samardzija did his job for the Cubs with seven shutout innings, but the offense was stymied by Liriano's 10-strikeout performance. 

    The Cubs and Pirates went scoreless for 9.5 innings before the bottom of the 10th inning. Neil Walker led off the inning against Cubs right-hander Carlos Villanueva. Eight pitches later, the Pirates were dancing all the way home. 

    It wasn't the prettiest game to watch, with the Cubs going 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position and the Pirates managing just one extra-base hit before Walker's heroics, but the record books show Pittsburgh is undefeated.

Buster Posey Provides Fireworks in the Desert

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Who says the San Francisco Giants need starting pitching to win?

    OK, they will eventually. But the offense provided the punch against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Opening Day with five extra-base hits, including a long homer from Brandon Belt in the sixth inning and Buster Posey's go-ahead two-run shot in the ninth inning. 

    The Diamondbacks appeared to have the Giants buried early in this game. They led 6-2 after the fifth inning and knocked Madison Bumgarner out in the fourth. 

    Unfortunately, Arizona starter Brandon McCarthy wasn't fooling anyone in the seventh inning, when the Giants scored four runs (three charged to McCarthy). The Diamondbacks bullpen, specifically Oliver Perez, struggled as well. 

    Angel Pagan doubled home a run, Brandon Belt singled and Pablo Sandoval singled Pagan home. 

    Posey put the cherry on top with his blast to left field. More encouraging for the Giants, who know what to expect from Posey, was Belt's three-hit day that included a homer and three runs scored.

Jose Fernandez Is Still Fantastic

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    Jose Fernandez had a dazzling rookie season in 2013, leading all MLB pitchers in hits allowed per nine innings (5.8) while also posting a 2.19 ERA, 176 ERA+, 187 strikeouts and 0.979 WHIP in 172.2 innings. 

    According to Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated, Fernandez ranked second in WHIP, fifth in ERA and sixth in strikeouts per nine innings among rookies since 1920. 

    So how could Fernandez possibly top that in his sophomore season? It's just one start, but the answer appears to be because he's that good. 

    Fernandez made the Colorado Rockies hitters look like minor leaguers. The 21-year-old threw 94 pitches, 73 for strikes, with nine strikeouts and five hits allowed in six innings. His lone blemish was a Carlos Gonzalez homer in the sixth inning. 

    Also important to note for the Marlins in their 10-1 triumph was Giancarlo Stanton's 2-for-5 performance that included a double and two RBI. 

    Going back to Fernandez, this was also a special day because his grandmother saw him pitch in a baseball game for the first time since he left Cuba. 

    In case you don't know the story, Fernandez received his NL Rookie of the Year trophy on MLB Network last November. He was doing an interview with the network when his grandmother, with some help from the Marlins, surprised him by showing up in the interview room. 

    You can't beat that moment. 

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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