Starters strong, bullpens struggle and the longest opener in history
Thursday brought the first multi-game slate of the 2012 baseball season and Opening Day for 13 teams. It was a day dominated by starting pitching, which was occasionally undermined by shaky relief pitching, and also brought us the longest Opening Day game in major league history, just to remind us that baseball will always show you something you've never seen before.
There have been ten games in the young season and the average score in those games has been 3.4 to 1.3. Out of 20 chances, a team scored more than four runs just twice in those games, and one of those two teams needed 16 innings to do it. In ten games, seven teams lost while scoring one or fewer runs and three teams were shutout, and the league as a whole averaged 2.35 runs per game.
That's not terribly meaningful, because of the small sample, because 13 teams, including some of the best offenses in the game, have yet to play, because run scoring is typically low this early in the season in part due to cooler temperatures, and because teams typically start their best pitchers on Opening Day. Still, it bears watching given the overall decline in run scoring in recent years, as per the table on the right:
The last season in which runs scored less often than in 2011 was 1992, when there were just 4.12 runs scored per game. Given the trend shown in the above table, one wonders if 2012 will dip to a comparable level.
Hey Indians and Blue Jays fans, you said you were desperate for baseball after a long, cold offseason, so are you satiated now that your teams gave you the longest Opening Day game in major league history? Cleveland and Toronto played for 16 innings on Thursday, and 16 full innings at that as the visiting Blue Jays ultimately emerged as the victor. That broke the previous record of 15 innings set by the A's and Senators in 1926 and tied by the Tigers and Indians in 1960.
This game was especially painful for the Indians as they took a 4-1 lead into the ninth after getting a sparkling eight-innings from starter Justin Masterson only to have closer Chris Perez, who struggled with an oblique injury in camp, blow that three-run lead, opening the door to the marathon that followed. The two bullpens then exchanged zeros for six frames until the Jays finally broke through in the top of the 16th on a three-run homer by catcher J.P. Arencibia off Jairo Asencio, a pitcher the Indians just bought from the Braves on Sunday. All totaled, there were 540 pitches thrown by 14 pitchers (including all seven of the Jays' relievers), 18 of which were balls four. The winning pitcher, lefty Luis Perez, entered in the 12th and threw four scoreless innings before yielding to the Jays' new closer Sergio Santos, who made his Blue Jays debut in the 16th.
Masterson was just one of three pitchers to hold his opponents to two hits over eight innings on Thursday on a day that was dominated by impressive starting pitching. Of the 14 men to draw the start on Thursday, nine turned in quality starts and eight of those men held their opponents to one run or fewer in seven or more innings. Masterson, Roy Halladay, and Justin Verlander each held their opponents to two hits over eight innings, and none of those three allowed more than one walk or run. Masterson and the Cubs Ryan Dempster both struck out ten men, and of the nine pitchers to turn in quality starts (a list that also included Johnny Cueto, Stephen Strasburg, Erik Bedard, Jon Lester, and Mark Buehrle), only two walked as many as three men, and only Buehrle allowed more hits than innings pitched.
What's more, none of those quality starts were part of the Mets' 1-0 victory over the Braves, though the starters in that game deserve special mention as both Johan Santana and Tommy Hanson were returning from injury and threw five strong innings before maxing out a pitch limit in the mid 80s. That makes 11 strong starts from 14 pitchers, and of the three exceptions, the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw pitched three scoreless innings before being removed from the game due to flu symptoms, and his opponent, San Diego's Edinson Volquez struck out seven in five innings while allowing just two earned runs.
That leaves Ricky Romero as the only starter to turn in a real clunker on Thursday, but his team won, in part because of . . .
Of the three pitchers to dominate for eight innings on Thursday, only one picked up a win. That's because, as low as scoring has been in the first days of the young season, and as good as the starters were on Thursday, there were a number of key relievers who had equally awful debuts. It all started in Detroit, when Jose Valverde, fresh off a season in which he converted all 52 of his save chances in the regular and postseasons, entered the ninth inning with a 2-0 lead and proceeded to blow his very first save chance of 2012.
Valverde wound up vulturing the win from Verlander in that game as the Red Sox's new end game duo of Mark Melancon and Alfredo Aceves blew the game in the bottom of the ninth to give the Tigers a 3-2 win. Next up were the Cubs, who, behind Dempster's strong outing, held a 1-0 lead on the Nationals heading into the eighth only to have Kerry Wood come on in relief with two outs and a runner on and walk the first three men he faced to force in the tying run. Closer Carlos Marmol then came on in the ninth and gave up what would prove to be the winning run on two-outs hits by Chad Tracy and Ian Desmond. Shift to Cleveland, where Perez had a three-run lead in the ninth and blew it in the course of five batters with a two-run double by Edwin Encarnacion being the decisive blow.
There weren't any out-sized hitting performances on Thursday, but it was nice to see two top MVP candidates from a year ago get off to hot starts. Jose Bautista went 3-for-4 with two walks and a home run for the Blue Jays. His solo homer in the fourth was the only run the Jays scored against Masterson in that game, and he also had a sac fly off Perez to start the scoring in the ninth. Matt Kemp, meanwhile, went 2-for-5 with a home run of his own and drove in three of the Dodgers five runs, though he was also caught stealing in his only attempt.