Even before Matt Garza was placed on the disabled list to start the season, Jeff Samardzija was the Cubs' true ace. After his breakout 2012 season, Samardzija became the face of the starting rotation, and he earned key player status in Chicago -- alongside Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo -- as the Cubs continue to work their way back toward contending status. It was only a matter of time before Samardzija was named the Opening Day starter. On Monday, he showed why he deserves to be atop this rotation.
Samardzija dominated the Pirates, tossing eight shutout innings and striking out nine while allowing just two hits and one walk. His fastball reached the mid-90s, and he flashed deft command of his splitter, which Fangraphs ranked as the best in the game in 2012. He threw 71 of his 110 pitches for strikes, and was only in trouble once, a jam not entirely of his own making. After walking the leadoff man in the first, Samardzija induced a weak ground ball that was booted by Brent Lillibridge, who was starting at second base for the injured Darwin Barney. Samardzija pitched out of it -- he forced Andrew McCutchen to hit into a fielder's choice, then struck out Pedro Alvarez and Gaby Sanchez. The Pirates only got one more man into scoring position with Samardzija on the mound, and even that was on a two-out double by McCutchen.
Granted, this was just one start, but it's a perfect depiction of what Samardzija can be on a consistent basis this season. In addition to his nine strikeouts, he got 12 ground-ball outs. When his splitter is working the way it was Monday, hitters have little chance. Samardzija will take yet another leap in his development this season.
Other noteworthy Opening Day starts
Of course, Samardzija wasn't the only ace who impressed on Opening Day. Clayton Kershaw notched a complete game shutout, fanning seven Giants and surrendering just four hits while hitting a solo home run of his own. Stephen Strasburg twirled seven shutout innings against the Marlins, striking out three and allowing just three hits in the Nationals' 2-0 win. Chris Sale struck out seven Royals across 7.2 shutout innings, allowing seven hits and walking one in a 1-0 White Sox victory. On the other side of that game, James Shields allowed one run on eight hits in six innings, striking out six. Meanwhile Johnny Cueto picked up a no-decision against the Angels after allowing one run on three hits and two walks while striking out nine in seven innings. I posited a few weeks ago that the paradigm in fantasy baseball had shifted, and that the formula for building a championship team was more dependent on starting pitching than ever before. I feel pretty good about that prediction one day into the season.
? Moving into the bullpen, one of the more interesting closer situations at the start of the season is unfolding in Detroit, where the Tigers appear to be approaching the ninth with a completely open mind. On Monday we got our first glimpse into what manager Jim Leyland might be thinking. With a 3-1 lead and the bases loaded with one out in the seventh, Leyland brought in Al Alburquerque to face Ryan Doumit. Doumit singled, but Albuquerque finished the inning. With righty Brian Dozier leading off the eighth, Leyland brought in Joaquin Benoit, who pitched the entire inning and stayed in to face Josh Willingham leading off the ninth. However, with lefties Justin Morneau and Ryan Doumit due up after Willingham, Leyland turned to southpaw Phil Coke to get the final two outs. Based on this, it looks like Leyland is content to play matchups unless someone steps up and takes command of the closer's role. Therefore, Benoit and Coke should be your additions of choice from the Tigers' bullpen.
? As I mentioned earlier, the Cubs were cruising to an Opening Day victory over the Pirates thanks to eight strong innings from Samardzija -- until we were all taken for a ride on the Marmolcoaster. Carlos Marmol hit Andrew McCutchen, who stole second base and scored on a single by Pedro Alvarez. After Marmol walked Gaby Sanchez, manager Dale Sveum decided he had seen enough. He turned first to James Russell, but the save ultimately went to Kyuji Fujikawa, who got Russell Martin to fly out weakly to center in his debut with the Pirates. This is a situation that bears watching. Fujikawa was a shutdown closer in Japan, and it's no secret that the Cubs would like to unload Marmol as soon as possible. Depending on your league parameters, Fujikawa may already have value.
? Milwaukee's John Axford blew a save Monday, giving up a game-tying solo homer to Dexter Fowler. He did strike out the other three batters he faced and he's not going to lose his job over one blown save, but it warrants mentioning that Jim Henderson picked up the win after working a perfect 10th with one strikeout. Henderson was lights out in limited duty last year, striking out 45 batters and posting a 1.95 FIP in 30.2 innings. If Axford continues to falter, manager Ron Roenicke has a ready-made replacement in Henderson who does have some closing experience.