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Superb Buehrle steals Opening Day spotlight with fielding gem

Mark Buehrle is known for great games, and he pitched another superb one on Opening Day. But it is one particular play of Buehrle's that stood out, a play so improbable and spectacular it just might have been the most memorable happening on an Opening Day where Braves phenom Jason Heyward hit a monster home run on his first at-bat, the great Albert Pujols hit two home runs and the Mets' beloved David Wright, who had trouble hitting homers at Citi Field last year, hit one to the opposite field.

Buehrle's play stood apart for its uniqueness, its creativity and its impossibility. Pujols will hit a lot of home runs (he's even had a two-homer day on Opening Day before, in 2006, and is the only Cardinal to do so since 1952), and for that matter, so will Heyward. But never again is anyone likely to see Buehrle's play duplicated. By him, or anyone else.

RELATED:Watch video of Buehrle's play.

The Indians' Lou Marson hit a liner that ricocheted off Buehrle's left shin into foul territory on the first base side, where Buehrle retrieved it by scooping it up with his glove and simultaneously flipping it between his legs to first baseman Paul Konerko, who caught it with his bare right hand to record an out. Whoever says pitchers aren't athletes might want to take a look at a replay.

Buehrle's no-look, between-the-legs scoop was a sight to behold. One White Sox person said he just may have wrapped up his second straight Gold Glove with that one play, and no one should disagree.

White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper simply told Buehrle, "That's the best play I've ever seen you make. And it might have been the best player I've ever seen made by a pitcher.''

The Indians' Shin-Soo Choo went a step further, telling writers at the ballpark that there that he thought it was "the best play I've ever seen.''

It wasn't just the play, either. "Today, he blew me away,'' Cooper said by phone last night, hours after Buehrle's 6-0 victory over the AL Central-rival Indians on Chicago's South Side.

"He had life, energy, stuff, movement,'' Cooper gushed about the seven-inning, three-hit, one-walk, three-strikeout outing in Buehrle's franchise-record eighth Opening Day assignment.

Generally speaking, Buehrle's pretty darned good, probably a lot better than most folks think. He probably isn't the first guy that comes to mind when naming the game's best pitchers. But he wins 60 percent of his games (he's 136-97 lifetime), he throws more than 200 innings every season (nine years and running, including five straight from 2001-05 that were at least 220), and he almost routinely makes the impossible seem simple.

Though he is perennially one of the softer throwers in the game and three times has allowed the most hits in a season ("Buehrle normally dominates games by contact,'' is the way Cooper put it), he has managed to throw two no-hitters, including his perfect game last year that was punctuated by another defensive play for the ages, the over-the-wall catch in the ninth inning by center fielder DeWayne Wise. Wise's play wins for its timing but Buehrle's was not to be believed.

As good as that play was, Buehrle will always be known first and foremost for his work on the mound. "It's all about movement and changing speeds,'' Cooper said of Buehrle. "He does it good, and he does it fast.'' Everything about Buehrle is fast except the velocity of his pitches. His fastball is generally in the mid 80s. He rarely touches 90 anymore. "I'm not even going to look at the gun,'' Cooper said. "If I'm judging him by the gun, I'm going to get down.'' Rather, Cooper said, "He gives hope to every kid who doesn't light up the gun.''

Cooper likes the hard throwers, too, and the White Sox have plenty of them, particularly relievers Bobby Jenks, Matt Thornton and Sergio Santos, all of whom live at 95 mph. Cooper is well known for liking all his guys (Monday night he was lamenting not having Jon Garland anymore), and on this staff, it's hard not to like what he sees. Buehrle leads one of the best rotations in baseball and will be followed by former Cy Young winner Jake Peavy, then John Danks, Gavin Floyd and Freddy Garcia. The bullpen isn't bad, either, with at least three pitchers qualified to close games in Jenks, Thornton and J.J. Putz.

"If we stay healthy, we're going to be pretty good,'' Cooper said. "And if we get hot, watch out.''

1. Buehrle

2. Tim Lincecum. He was awful in spring training but dominating on Opening Day. He became the first Giants Opening Day pitcher since Juan Marichal in 1972 to go seven innings and record at least seven strikeouts.

3. Ubaldo Jimenez. Hit 98 mph with pitches running in on right-handed batters to beat the Brewers, one of baseball's best-hitting teams. "Could be one of the great pitchers in the game,'' according to one scout.

4. Roy Halladay. No surprise, he was brilliant against the Nationals, save one hanger or two he got away with.

5. Johan Santana. He brought life again to the Mets in his return from surgery and became the first Met since Tom Seaver to win three straight Opening Day games (Seaver did it from 1975-77; he was traded in the Midnight Massacre in 1977). The question is what comes the following four days.

6. Dan Haren. He threw strikes on 20 of 24 first pitches and continues not to feel the pressure in Brandon Webb's absence, who is now gone a solid year (he last pitched on Opening Day last year).

7. Justin Verlander. He was pumping it up at 99 mph, though he gave up four runs to the Royals, a better hitting team than most think (for what it's worth, they led the majors in runs this spring).

Josh Beckett and the Red Sox apparently were pretty well in agreement on the main financials of the deal -- $68 million and four years -- for weeks, but took their time finalizing the other aspects of the deal, and the reason appears to be that the Red Sox are just above the $170-million luxury tax threshold. Boston has stayed below the threshold in recent years so they are taxed at the lowest rate of 22.5 percent, but by waiting to finalize this deal, Beckett's old deal alone ($10 million a year) is used to compute their tax. Had they finalized the extension before the season started, they would have raised his tax number to $14 million a year. By waiting, the Red Sox saved about $880,000 in luxury tax. Beckett's deal includes a very limited no-trade clause that will include three teams. He becomes a 10-and-5 player in just under two years, though, meaning that with 10 years of major league service and five years with his current team he can veto any trade.

Jarrod Washburn could become a candidate for any of the teams with injury questions in their rotations. That could possibly include the Diamondbacks, who are awaiting the return of Webb, and perhaps the Rockies, depending on what happens with Jeff Francis, whose recurrence of shoulder trouble happened right on the cusp of the season. The Rockies will have an idea about Francis within the next few days. The Mariners and Royals are among other teams to be bidding on Washburn.

Franklin Morales had a rough first outing replacing Huston Street as Colorado's closer. But he relied on a couple of bullets that were caught vs. the Brewers, including one by Milwaukee's Prince Fielder on a brilliant leap by great Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Street recently got good news on his shoulder from noted surgeon Dr.James Andrews, the Denver Post reported. So he may be only a few weeks away.

• Banned in Boston: Casey Kotchman batted third for Seattle, Adam LaRoche hit fourth for the D-backs and Mark Kotsay hit fifth for the White Sox. What do all these players have in common? All were extras for the Red Sox at some point last season.

• Radar champion. Joel Zumaya hit 102 mph on the gun, topping Verlander at 99 and Jimenez at 98.

• The Mets have the best Opening Day record at 32-17, believe it or not.

Gary Matthews Jr. got the Opening Day start for Jerry Manuel. But that might have something to do with Manuel wanting defense with Santana pitching. Angel Pagan should get the bulk of the time until Carlos Beltran returns.

Ruben Tejada will go down to the minors when Jose Reyes returns. The Mets still hope that's for game five, on Saturday.

• Everyone loves Heyward and predicts stardom for him. But a Braves outfielder making his debut hit a homer on Opening Day last year, too. That was Jordan Schafer.

Johnny Damon drove home go-ahead run for Tigers, Hideki Matsui for the Angels.

• It was 66 degrees or better for the start every game. Beautiful.

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