Opening Day thoughts: Stroman outduels Archer; Cards’ lefty problem
Baseball is back! The 2016 Major League Baseball season opened Sunday afternoon with a pair of compelling games between division rivals with the Pirates beating the Cardinals 4–1 in Pittsburgh and the Chris Archer-Marcus Stroman matchup largely living up to the hype in Tampa Bay, where the Blue Jays emerged victorious by a final score of 5–3. Here are three thoughts on Sunday’s early action:
Cardinals left out in the cold
The Cardinals as a team posted an OPS 74 points lower against left-handed pitchers than against right-handed pitchers last year, and their struggles against lefties continued on Opening Day in 2016. Pirates lefties Francisco Liriano and Tony Watson combined to hold St. Louis scoreless through seven innings on Sunday, with starter Liriano scattering a trio of singles and five walks over six scoreless innings while striking out 10 and reliever Watson pitching a perfect seventh, striking out two.
The Cardinals’ vulnerability to lefties was exacerbated in the bottom of the second when leftfielder Tommy Pham was forced to come out of the game, which was played in near-freezing temperatures in Pittsburgh, due to a tight oblique. Other than Pham, who was in the game as part of a complex platoon that saw Matt Holliday make his major-league debut at first base, the only righty on the Cardinals’ bench is backup catcher Eric Fryer. With Pham hurt, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had to replace him in the lineup with a lefty, choosing lefty-swinging first baseman Matt Adams, and when Watson came on in the seventh to face the pitcher’s spot in the order, Matheny had only left-handed pinch-hitters to send to the plate. As a result, Watson got to face three lefties in that inning (pinch-hitter Jeremy Hazelbaker, making his major league debut, Matt Carpenter and Adams). Altogether, the Cardinals’ lefties—Carpenter, Adams, second baseman Kolten Wong and Hazelbaker—went 0-for-10 with a walk (from Liriano to Carpenter) in those first seven innings. Wong looked especially bad against Liriano’s slider, making a pair of big outs with the bases loaded, striking out to end the fourth and popping out for the second out of the sixth. A hit in either of those situations could have changed the outcome of a game that the Pirates won 4–1, the lone Cardinals run coming in the ninth inning on a two-out RBI single by Carpenter against right-handed closer Mark Melancon.
Eight beats 12
Chris Archer’s 12 strikeouts against the Blue Jays were the most by a single pitcher on Opening Day since Felix Hernandez struck out 12 A’s in 2007. Only eight pitchers since 1913 have struck out more men on Opening Day, the most recent being Randy Johnson, who struck out 14 White Sox in 1996. The Senators’ Camilo Pascual holds the record with 15 against the Red Sox in 1960. Nine other pitchers since 1913, including Fernandez, have struck out exactly 12 on Opening Day. All of them threw six or more innings. Archer collected his 12 strikeouts in just five innings on Sunday. That early exit was in large part the result of a poor first inning in which Archer allowed four baserunners, gave up a pair of runs and threw 34 pitches. As a result, Archer needed 107 pitches to get through the end of the fifth inning.
As impressive as Archer’s strikeout total may have been, his performance paled next to that of Marcus Stroman, who pitched into the ninth inning, throwing just 92 pitches and allowing just one run through eight innings. Stroman was chased by a leadoff home run, by the Rays’ new designated hitter Corey Dickerson, and a single to start the ninth, but still exited with a three-run lead having thrown just 98 pitches, a whopping 74 of them (76%) strikes. Aided by a generous low-strike call from home plate umpire Mike Everitt, Stroman pounded the bottom of the zone, throwing first-pitch strikes to 27 of the 32 men he faced, walking just one and going to a three-ball count on only one other hitter. Stroman got 20 of his 24 outs via groundout (14), strikeout (5) or pop-up (1) and very much looked the part of the ace in which he has been cast this season. However, he’ll face a much tougher task in his next start when he has to return to his hitting-friendly home ballpark to face the far more dangerous Red Sox lineup.
Archer was overthrowing in the first inning, missing his spots badly, and it was no surprise that the Blue Jays took advantage by plating two runs before the Rays even got their first at-bat of the season. As I detailed in my Blue Jays’ season preview, Toronto’s lineup ranks among the greatest in major league history. Indeed, despite all of Archer’s strikeouts, they took advantage of a Logan Morrison error to start the fourth, plating a third run against the Rays’ ace. Later, when Rays manager Kevin Cash tried to get a second inning of work out of reliever Ryan Webb, the Jays again pounced with Troy Tulowitzki cracking the first home run of the 2016 season, a two-run shot that plated Edwin Encarnacion, whose previous single plated those two first-inning runs. Despite all that, the five runs the Blue Jays scored were still shy of their per-game average from a season ago.