Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 4, 2013

From Coast To Coast, A New Beginning

There is a time in the season of every sport given over to the simple twin delights of joy and possibility. In the Great Game, that time comes at the beginning of each new season. In stadiums all across the country, over the hours it took for a clock’s hands to move from Sunday evening to Tuesday afternoon, fans turned out to cheer as their heroes began a new march through the longest season. As always the moment was perfectly aligned with the calendar, coming just as North America emerges from winter’s icy grip. The hope symbolized by the first buds of spring was mirrored in ballparks everywhere. With pageantry and pomp came Opening Day, the moment of unlimited potential. Along with oversized flags stretched across outfields and ceremonial first pitches by Hall of Famers, this year’s Opening Day brought comforting affirmations of established greatness, tantalizing glimpses of raw potential, and surprising reminders that expert opinion aside, there is always reason to actually play the games.

One of the last was produced by the very first contest of the new season. Sunday night the woebegone Houston Astros, losers of more than 100 games each of the last two seasons, played host to the Texas Rangers, the American League representative in the World Series two of the last three years. Newly transferred from the NL to the AL West, Houston is expected to be the doormat of their new division, and through 162 games the team will more than likely find a way to live down to those expectations. But don’t tell that just yet to the more than 41,000 fans who went home happy after the home team trounced the visitors 8-2. For the first few hours of the 2013 season the Astros led all twenty-nine other franchises. The game was close until the last of the 6th, when Rick Ankiel took the well-traveled Derek Lowe deep for the decisive three-run homer. Reliever Erik Bedard earned the season’s first save the old-fashioned way, pitching not just the 9th but fully three and one-third scoreless frames.

A casual fan might think that an unexpected result also occurred in Queens, where the Mets trounced the San Diego Padres 11-2 Monday afternoon. The home squad rapped out 13 hits, including a grand slam by new center fielder Collin Cowgill, in support of a fine pitching performance by Jonathon Niese. But what the casual fan would miss is the fact that while expectations for the Mets may be modest for games 2 through 162, they are the lords of Opening Day. The win over the Padres improved their record to 34-18 in openers, a .654 winning percentage that is unmatched in the majors. The number is all the more impressive considering that starting in 1962 the expansion Mets lost on Opening Day in each of their first eight seasons. Unfortunately for Mets fans, given both the team’s history and its current roster that gaudy statistic is likely no presage of a 106-win season.

As for great players wasting no time in reasserting themselves, Opening Day brought plenty examples of that, especially on pitching mounds. In frigid Minnesota the thermometer never climbed above the mid-30s and a stiff breeze blowing out to center made it feel even colder. But that didn’t bother Justin Verlander of the Tigers. Just last week the winner of both the AL MVP and Cy Young Awards in 2011 signed a seven-year, $180 million contract extension, making him the highest paid pitcher ever. With the ink barely dry on the contract Verlander set to work proving his worth; stifling the Twins for five innings, allowing no runs and just three hits while striking out seven in an eventual 4-2 Detroit victory.

Later Monday Felix Hernandez, whose own contract extension with the Mariners had made him the highest paid pitcher in history for a little over a month until Verlander and the Tigers reached their deal, was even more impressive. The 2010 AL Cy Young winner held the defending AL West champions scoreless for seven and two-thirds in Oakland. Only four A’s reached base against Hernandez, who fanned eight.

But as good as Verlander and Hernandez were, it was the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw who turned in the most impressive performance of the day by a former Cy Young Award winner. Kershaw, who won the NL award in 2011 when like Verlander in the AL he led his league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA, threw a complete game shutout against San Francisco. On a day that saw Sandy Koufax return to Chavez Ravine to throw out the first pitch, Kershaw was every bit as dominant a left hander as the legendary Hall of Famer. Surely going the distance and striking out seven while scattering just four hits to beat his team’s arch-rival on Opening Day would have been more than enough to earn Kershaw the adulation of the 53,000-plus in attendance. But on Monday the 25-year old did it all. A career .146 hitter, Kershaw broke up the scoreless tie with his first major league home run, a bomb to center in the 8th inning that sparked the 4-0 L.A. win.

Every Opening Day the unlikely achievements of underdogs and the anticipated dominance of established stars generate great excitement. But perhaps because it coincides with nature’s time of blossoming, the greatest thrills at the start of every season come from the performances of those who stand on the brink of stardom; thus on this Opening Day there were no greater thrills than those shared by the more than 45,000 fans who filled Nationals Park to overflowing.

Washington made right hander Stephen Strasburg the number one overall pick in the 2009 draft. One year later they conferred the same honor on slugging outfielder Bryce Harper. Strasburg debuted for the Nationals in June 2010, but by August of that year he was facing Tommy John surgery and a lengthy rehab. He returned late in the 2011 season, not long after Harper’s first season in the minors was cut short by a hamstring injury.

Last year Nationals fans got a preview of the greatness that could lie ahead for both players. Strasburg went 15-6 and was the first pitcher in the majors to reach the 100 strikeout plateau. But because it was his first full season back after the surgery, GM Mike Rizzo made the controversial decision to shut Strasburg down in early September. As Washington finished the season with the most wins in the majors and brought postseason ball back to D.C. for the first time in eight decades, Strasburg could only watch from the bench. While Strasburg’s 2012 season ended early, Harper’s began late. Once called up he won the NL Rookie of the Year Award, setting major league records for total bases and extra base hits by a teenager while displaying a rocket arm in the outfield and both daring and speed on the base paths. But on Opening Day last year Harper was on his way to Syracuse to join Washington’s AAA affiliate.

Finally on Monday the Nationals took the field with their two phenoms in the starting lineup and playing without restrictions, ready to take their team as far as their abilities and continued good health will allow. For all of the hype surrounding the two young men, both outperformed it. Strasburg surrendered a single up the middle to Juan Pierre on his second pitch of the game. He then retired the next nineteen Miami Marlins to come to the plate. It was the top of the 7th before Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton doubled with one out, then went to third on a Placido Polanco single, the third and final base runner that Strasburg allowed. When Rob Brantly followed with a line drive to left, Harper snared the ball for the second out then delivered a cannon shot to home plate. The throw froze Stanton at third and allowed the Nationals to trap Polanco in a run down. When Stanton tried to sneak home he became the easy second out of an inning-ending double play. By the time that transpired the Nationals were leading 2-0, thanks entirely to Harper. In his first at bat in the home half of the 1st inning he drove the second pitch he saw, a 73 MPH curve, over the out-of-town scoreboard in right center for a home run. Leading off the 4th in his next trip to the plate, Harper hammered a full count slider even deeper into the right field seats.

Strasburg’s line for the game was seven innings pitched, no runs, three hits and three strikeouts, all in just eighty pitches; while at age 20 Harper became the youngest major leaguer ever to homer twice on Opening Day. There is no such thing as guaranteed success in the Great Game. For every plaque in Cooperstown the game’s history has a dozen stories of prodigies who flamed out early. But if Nationals fans were in fact afforded a glimpse of their team’s future on this Opening Day, it is a future blindingly bright.

For Washington and the twenty-nine other clubs, the timeless rhythms of the longest season now unfold. Some franchises set forth with modest expectations even as for others they are sky-high; yet the very nature of the Great Game ensures that the also-rans will have moments of triumph, and the two teams who eventually find their way to the Fall Classic will only do so after weathering periods of losing and doubt. That lies ahead. Here at the start, with upsets, star turns, and a new generation of heroes laying claim to the devotion of fans, it all began with every season’s magical day; the one filled with possibility and hope, and the first commands to “play ball!”

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