Tuesday April 6th, 2010

On Opening Day hope springs eternal -- except in Cleveland, where the rebuilding Indians got off to a terrible start by being the only team to get shutout in the day's 13-game slate.

Even before the games got underway, Monday was full of headlines. In Boston, the Red Sox signed ace Josh Beckett to a four-year extension one day after rallying to beat the defending World Series champion Yankees at Fenway Park. In Washington, President Barack Obama commemorated the 100th anniversary of William Howard Taft's inaugural presidential first pitch by sailing his own offering high and wide of the plate.

Here are five things we learned about the new season from a scintillating Opening Day:

1. Jason Heyward did nothing to diminish his exceeding hype

Even before his shirt was available for purchase at Turner Field -- as one fan noted, Braves merchandise stands apparently insisted that he play an official game first -- Heyward had given a fan a souvenir, crushing a home run ball to right field on his very first major-league swing. He did that after catching the ceremonial first pitch from Hank Aaron, to whom Heyward has been compared by manager Bobby Cox. Heyward, Baseball America's No. 1 prospect, did both very calmly, with a been-there-before confidence, even though, just 20 years old, he had done neither. (He is, however, deferential about his age, noting on Twitter, for instance, that his definition of old-school rap is different than most people's.)

The Braves pounded out 16 runs thanks in large part to Heyward, a native of suburban Atlanta, who finished the day 2-for-5 with four RBIs in front of two very proud parents. His folks obtained 64 tickets for family and friends and their infectious enthusiasm was frequently captured by television cameras. Also noteworthy was that his father, Eugene, was wearing his son's t-shirt in advance of the mid-game mandate.

2. Shaun Marcum is back, and he deserved better

Toronto's Marcum went 576 days between major-league pitches, a time that included Tommy John surgery and full-time rehab. In taking the ball as the Blue Jays' No. 1 starter, Marcum then threw 81 pitches before allowing his first hit since Sept. 2008, holding onto a no-hitter (and a 3-0 lead) for 6 1/3 innings before the Rangers' Vladimir Guerrero laced a single to right, which ultimately led to a three-run, game-tying Nelson Cruz homer. Marcum finished the inning for a spectacular seven-inning, six-strikeout, two-hit, one-walk return to baseball -- doing so against a powerful Rangers lineup in the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington, no less -- and the Blue Jays even scored in the top of the eighth to give Marcum a shot at the win, only to blow it in the ninth.

Before his elbow injury Marcum was emerging as great No. 2 starter behind Roy Halladay in a talented Toronto rotation, having gone 21-13 with a 3.77 ERA and a 1.21 WHIP in 2007 and '08. The Kansas City resident was diligent in rehabbing, relocating his wife and kids to be with him in Florida, near the club's Dunedin, Fla., training facility. "It was a long process, but it was a learning experience, too, to be away from the game that long," he said last month. "It feels like a new arm, so I'm ready to go." The Jays won't win much this year, so Marcum may need to get to used to shoddy support, but it's a particular shame for him not to have won after taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his comeback.

3. The best-pitcher-in-the-NL-East debate rages on

Asked to name the NL East's best pitcher back in February, Mets ace Johan Santana flatly replied, "Santana." Self-confidence is one thing, but his comment drew headlines because it came just days after Halladay -- who does trail Santana two Cy Youngs to one -- reported to camp for his new employer, the three-time reigning division champion Phillies.

There obviously won't be a clear cut winner after just one start or even a dozen, but on this day at least, both were brilliant: Halladay threw seven innings of one-run ball, striking out nine; Santana only went six innings but also gave up just one run and struck out five. Halladay, however, contributed with his bat, knocking in a run on a fourth-inning infield single for his second career RBI. Incidentally, the Mets improved their major-league best Opening Day winning percentage to .653.

The NL West can have a similar debate, though the Giants' Tim Lincecum and his 2008 and '09 Cy Young awards make him the clear "best pitcher" designate for now. On Opening Day Lincecum's seven shutout innings with seven strikeouts were closely followed by the Diamondbacks' Dan Haren (7 IP, 4 K, 1 ER) and the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez (6 IP, 6 K, 1 ER). Collectively, the trio had a 0.90 ERA.

4. That Albert Pujols guy is good at baseball

Here's what we know: The sun will rise, the sun will set and the three-time National League MVP will hit on Opening Day. Pujols went 4-for-5 on Monday, including two home runs, and he now has at least one hit in eight of his nine Opening Day games for an aggregate 17-for-35 (a cool .486 average). It was his second two-home run outburst, having done the same in Philadelphia in 2006.

Most importantly for the Cardinals is the return of Pujols' power. Not that there were ever any legitimate questions, but he answered them emphatically anyway after finishing last season with a career-long drought of 89 at bats without a homer (though he batted .357 in that stretch) and undergoing offseason surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow.

5. The defense may not be ready for primetime

There were the aforementioned brilliant pitching performances, and six teams scored at least eight runs in their openers, along with four reaching double figures, but the defense across the majors was mostly offensive (Mark Buehrle not included). Eight of the 26 teams that played on Monday committed at least two errors, contributing to a league-wide 28 miscues. That's more than the last two Opening Days combined when there were a total of five teams (three in 2009, two in '08) with multiple errors for a total of 24. The A's were the biggest culprits, making four fielding mistakes including two by catcher Kurt Suzuki, one by first baseman Daric Barton and one by third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, who made only three errors all last season for the Padres. Oakland's errors led to three unearned runs as they lost to the Mariners by two, 5-3.

Of the eight teams with at least two errors, only the Cardinals and Rockies prevailed in spite of their fielding gaffes, and it should be noted that the Brewers, Colorado's opponent, were one of their other teams with a pair of E's.

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