Waiting for Monday
We spend a winter magnifying, analyzing, and criticizing. We talk about baseball in other countries, or exhibitions in Arizona. We get excited about standing in hotel lobbies in December, waiting for news -- any news -- to break.
We have the Super Bowl, the BCS, March Madness. We have the slam dunk competition, the Pro Bowl, and, most years, hockey.
But all these things are simply what we use to distract our attention. Every year, our winters are filled with waiting. Waiting for home runs, strikeouts, and stolen bases. Or better yet, waiting for days like Monday.
Thanks to ESPN, WGN, and, of course, MLB TV, I was able to catch part of every single game that was played on Monday. It was action-packed, enthralling, and, at times, dramatic. My thoughts from the sights and sounds of baseball's Opening Day...
I saw the story of the day -- drug-free power -- and in a big way. From the left side, there were Dmitri Young and Adam Dunn. From the right, Richie Sexson and Xavier Nady. I saw two of Young's three home runs, both offspeed pitches that Jose Lima missed with on the inside part of the plate. Our modern day version of Tuffy Rhodes is proving that power doesn't recede with age in his family, and maybe teaching Delmon it's OK to be old, too. Both of Dunn's home runs were fastballs that weren't quite fast enough. Sexson made his first Mariner at-bat count, muscling a ball right over the left field fence. Nady used the elements (the Rockie mountains) to his advantage, and came away with four RBI.
I also saw a lot of another form of power: from the mound. There was Ben Sheets against Oliver Perez, a match of top two K/9 pitchers from 2004. Neither looked fantastic, but mid-90s fastballs and jaw-dropping breaking pitches were quite prevalent. As well as, of course, a lot of the "praying mantiss" wind-up that Perez should become famous for. Surprisingly there was also some power in Tampa, where Roy Halladay and Dewon Brazelton both pitched quite well. Reports of Halladay being back make quite a lot of sense after seeing that curve, let me tell you. But the best came first, when Jeremy Bonderman led off the day wonderfully, striking out five in the first two innings. Everyone's favorite breakout candidate started the season well, fooling many a Royal with that great breaking pitch.
The pitcher of the day was not one with a mid-90s fastball though, it was Mark Buerhle. I heard Hawk Harrelson call the 1-0 throwback style game, with Buerhle's cutter outdueling Jake Westbrook's sinker. Jake did force an astounding seventeen ground ball outs, constantly throwing the pitch down in the zone. If Alex Cora had been in the game at short rather than Jhonny Peralta (a bobble allowed the only run to cross home), my AL Central pick might be 1-0. But you can't say enough about Buerhle, who looked great all spring. With the best rotation depth they have had since Mark broke into the Majors, the general public might be selling Ozzie's club a bit short this year.
Heading back to power, I saw it in both kinds from the Mets newcomers today. Pedro Martinez struggled in his first Met inning -- giving up one Dunn shot -- before settling down to strike out twelve in six innings. Pedro was up to 94 mph with his fastball, and his change looked as good as ever. Omar Minaya's other huge winter addition, Carlos Beltran, also made his presence felt in his Mets debut. Falling a triple short of the cycle, Beltran homered in his second at-bat, tying the game for the Mets. Then in the seventh inning, the center fielder singled home the go-ahead run. Think the Wilpons are happy consumers today?
What Fred likely is not happy about, however, was the inattention paid to the bullpen this winter. This negligence cost Minaya and the Mets big time in their opener, as Braden Looper proved he might not be the best option at closer for a contending team. I saw Looper cost Pedro the win, giving up home runs to Dunn and Joe Randa, who hit a walk-off in his first game as a Red.
In the aforementioned Jays-Rays game, I saw in the bottom of the third how the Devil Rays plan to win games this year. With runners on the corners and one out, Carl Crawford hit what should have been an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play. Not only did Crawford leg out a fielder's choice to allow Chris Singleton to score, but the pressure he put on Orlando Hudson caused a throwing error. In the top of the third, I saw how the Blue Jays plan to win. Hudson took Brazelton deep, and Vernon Wells followed him with a shot of his own. Home runs for one, small ball for the other. I'll take the Jays.
I saw Coors be Coors, in a game where there was thirty hits and eight home runs. Somehow I missed six of the home runs while tuning in on other games, but I did see Jeff Baker make his first Major League hit count. If ever there was a stadium for a pitcher ERA to be left at 54.00 (I'm looking at you, Brian Fuentes), it was this one. I also saw Philadelphia act like they played in altitude, as that game had 27 hits. Four different times I switched over to see the bases loaded, scoring I believe a total of one run. As much as we like to trample on RBI as a stat, I think Washington will tell you a few more two-out RBI would have given them their first win.
I saw many new beginnings, including very good ovations for Magglio Ordonez, Sammy Sosa, and the two new Seattle sluggers. Ordonez struggled in his at-bats, Sosa was on base three times, and I did get to see Beltre's lone hit. While Sosa and Ordonez are both superstars, it is nice that both have discounted their centerpiece role and recognized Miguel Tejada and Ivan Rodriguez, respectively. Also, if anyone saw Ivan Rodriguez today, they'll know why you might want to trade for him in your fantasy league.
One rarity I saw was two Rule 5 picks play in Opening Day. I wonder if this has happened before, as normally I would think these players are not seen as first day options. To see Andy Sisco on the mound was nothing I would have ever predicted a year ago. He was back in the mid-90s, but I was enthused to see some not-so-great fastball control from him. He was also responsible for hitting a batter that led to both benches being warned. Tony Blanco came in to pinch hit for the Nationals, and struck out, showing a very, very long swing. Believe me, this kid has a lot more strike outs coming his way before that career is over.
Another first of mine today was seeing three Asian pitchers throw in one day. Shingo Takatsu, the most unique pitcher in baseball, closed out Mark Buerhle's gem today. And both Akinori Otsuka and Dae Sung Koo set up the closers effectively in their games. Takatsu is undoubtedly the best of that bunch, and while his statistics call for regression, he might just be the exception to the rule.
Finally, there was the Cubs. Like the Red Sox-Yankees game on Sunday I was able to watch every pitch, and unlike Sunday, came away smiling. As much as I've complained about the occasional decision, this is a very good team, and one that will hit more than people think. Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez both could be on the cusp of superstardom, and everyone is jumping on the Nomar bandwagon this year. All three looked fantastic against some bad pitching yesterday, with Aramis the star after signing a four-year extension hours before the game. Zambrano struggled a bit, but was every bit himself, and should be fine. As long as they can score consistently, which was the problem last year, this Cubs team will at least be right in the Wild Card hunt.
Baseball is back in a big way, and if we can have days like this until next winter, it was well worth the wait.