Five Cuts: Pitching duel in Cincinnati; Jeter honored in Houston; notable debuts
At long last, we've checked off all of the Opening Days, so pack up the bunting until October and settle in for a six-month ride. We're already off to quite the start: Wednesday's 15 games gave us five walkoffs, including the Pirates-Cubs game that went into 16 innings, the Phillies-Rangers that Texas won on a walkoff walk and a White Sox victory over the Twins that came thanks to a balk and two wild pitches in the 11th. It's safe to say we're fully immersed in the 2014 baseball season:
1. Delayed duel
Speaking of walkoffs, yet another one of the five came in Cincinnati, after the game between the Cardinals and the Reds remained scoreless into the bottom of the 9th. It may not have been the twin no-hit bids of the Matt Garza-Aaron Harang matchup, but the Cardinals' Michael Wacha and the Reds' Tony Cingrani — neither of whom has a full season in a major league rotation under his belt — put on a display of fine young pitching talent Wednesday night. In a game whose start was delayed two hours and forty minutes due to rain, the two pitchers kept things scoreless through the (roughly) seven innings that each pitched. The 22-year-old Wacha gave the Cardinals 6 2/3 innings of three-hit ball while striking out seven over the course of 104 pitches before yielding to the bullpen. He got into trouble in the fourth inning by yielding a single to Joey Votto (who had doubled off of him in the first), and with two outs he hit Ryan Ludwick with a pitch and walked Todd Frazier to load the bases, but then recovered by getting Zack Cosart to ground out.
Not to be outdone, the 24-year-old Cingrani gave up two hits and struck out nine over seven innings and 92 pitches. He struck out four of the nine hitters he faced before yielding a leadoff single to Matt Carpenter to lead off the fourth, and not until the seventh inning did he allow multiple runners on base. In that frame, he worked around a leadoff walk to Jhonny Peralta and a one-out single by Allen Craig, escaping by getting Yadier Molina to fly out and then striking out Matt Adams swinging at a low-and-away slider.
Aided by a run-saving catch by Cosart on Carpenter's eighth-inning line drive, the game headed into the bottom of the ninth tied at zero. The Reds loaded the bases against Carlos Martinez and Chris Heisey drove in Ryan Ludwick with an RBI single to get the Reds a 1-0 walkoff win.
2. Hellos and goodbyes in Houston
After beating the Yankees 3-1, the Astros are 2-0, which means they're off to their best start since 2003. That's cause enough for celebration, but they have to be particularly pleased with the early returns on Dexter Fowler. Acquired from the Rockies in a December trade for righty Jordan Lyles and outfielder Brandon Barnes, their new 28-year-old centerfielder has four hits so far, all for extra bases.
Fowler was the only Astro to connect for a hit in the first five innings against Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda. He homered to right-centerfield on the 39-year-old righty's second pitch of the game, and in the third inning smoked a triple to deep centerfield, forcing Jacoby Ellsbury to climb the infamous Tal's Hill to retrieve the ball as it caromed off the wall:
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The game was preceded by the start of the Derek Jeter Farewell Tour. In a five-minute ceremony, the Yankee captain was presented with some hideous pinstriped cowboy boots as well as a a Stetson hat and a set of golf clubs. Ex-teammates Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, both former Astros, were on hand, as was another late-1990s Yankee, Mike Stanton, who now works for MLB Network Radio.
It's worth remembering that Jeter's history with Houston could have been a whole lot richer. In 1992, the Astros owned the top pick of the amateur draft. In making their pick, they went against the advice of scout (and Hall of Fame pitcher) Hal Newhouser, who in his glowing report to the team had said, "'No one is worth $1 million... But if one kid is worth that, it's this kid," and predicted that Jeter would be the foundation of a winning club. The team instead chose Phil Nevin, who played just 18 games for the Astros before being dealt as the player to be named later in a mid-1995 deal for closer Mike Henneman. The 74-year-old Newhouser quit in disgust, Jeter slipped to the sixth pick, and 3,317 hits and five world championships later, the Astros' decision looks no better.
3. Slugger Gio Gonzalez
In his first start of the year, Gonzalez looked sharp, holding the Mets to one run on three hits and one walk over the course of six innings. Business as usual for the 28-year-old lefty, who's coming off a 3.36 ERA and 8.8 strikeouts per nine in 195 2/3 innings last year.
Also business as usual: Gonzalez's fifth-inning solo homer off Bartolo Colon, which came two batters after Ian Desmond's solo shot broke a 1-1 tie. Gonzalez is actually a terrible hitter (.087/.107/.150 in 150 career PA coming in), but he has now homered in all three of his seasons with the Nationals. His towering drive to left-center hit the railing above the top of the fence and caromed back into the field of play, causing a moment of confusion before the umpires ruled it a homer:
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The home run was the first by a pitcher this year. The shots by Gonzalez and Desmond spoiled Colon's otherwise solid debut -- the 40-year-old righty was peppered for eight of the nine hits he allowed over the final three of his six innings. He threw 110 pitches, struck out four, and allowed three runs in the Mets' 5-1 loss.
Colon's own bat-handling drew its fair share of attention, starting with the reactivation of the long-dormant @BartoloAtBat twitter account. An even worse hitter than Gonzalez (.104/.112/.104 in 104 PA), Colon nearly came away with a broken-bat single up the middle in the third inning, and drew a standing ovation for doing so. It would have been his first hit since June 10, 2005, and just his second since 2002. The GIF from @corkgaines:
4. New Career in a New Town
On a day that saw Garza take a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his first start for the Brewers and Colon make his debut with the Mets, a few other key free agents also took the mound for their new teams for the first time in the regular season. Scott Kazmir, whose two-year, $22 million deal with the A's spelled the end of Colon's two-year run in the green and gold, threw 7 1/3 innings of three-hit shutout ball against the Indians, the team he pitched for last year. He threw 94 pitches and struck out five. After the game, former teammate Nick Swisher — his first strikeout victim of the day — told MLB.com's Jordan Bastian, "He gave us a little taste of our own medicine, of what we were getting all last year."
Every bit as good was Tim Hudson in his first game for the Giants, and his first regular season game since suffering a season-ending ankle injury last July. Facing the Diamondbacks, the 38-year-old righty yielded just three hits and didn't walk a batter over the course of 7 2/3 innings and 103 pitches in San Francisco's 2-0 win. Meanwhile, Jason Vargas held the Tigers to one run and five hits in seven innings while striking out six in his debut for the Royals. That run came via a solo homer by Ian Kinsler, who also spoiled KC's day with a walkoff single in the 10th inning -- and for those counting, that's the Tigers' second straight walkoff win over the Tigers.
Faring less well was another former Indian, Ubaldo Jimenez, who in his debut for the Orioles gave up a pair of two-run homers by the Red Sox' David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. Those four runs were the only ones Jimenez allowed across six innings, but on a night when John Lackey kept Baltimore at bay, they were enough to send the O's to defeat.
5. The day in expanded instant replay
If you're looking for an easy way to keep tabs on the use of MLB's new system of manager challenges and umpire reviews, the @MLBReplays Twitter feed is a must-follow as it provides summaries and links to video clips for each occasion. At this writing, eight plays came up for review on Wednesday, five of which were overturned.
The most crucial one came in the top of the 10th inning in the Royals-Tigers game. With two outs and Lorenzo Cain on second, Norichika Aoki hit a comebacker to pitcher Al Alburquerque, who threw to first, where umpire Chris Conway called him safe even as he tumbled past the bag, having apparently stepped on Miguel Cabrera's foot. Tigers manager Brad Ausmus — who had earlier challenged an out call at first base that was overturned — challenged the call and it went the Tigers' way. Aoki was called out, and the inning was over, setting the stage for Kinsler's walkoff hit. Perhaps more controversial was a play at the plate in the second inning of the first game of the doubleheader between the Indians and A's. With one out and Derek Norris on third, Josh Donaldson grounded to Carlos Santana at third base. Santana threw home, but it wasn't clear if Yan Gomes was successful in his swipe tag of Norris or not. Home plate ump Mark Wegner called him out, and after an epic four minutes and 45 seconds of review, the call was upheld because of a lack of conclusive evidence to the contrary; via at least one angle, Norris appeared safe, but in what should have been the most definitive angle — from high overhead — Wegner blocked the view. It ended up not mattering; the A's led 2-0 at the time, scored again in the frame, and went on to win 6-1.