A new season means a new start for my weekly MLB column: ‘Weekly Hit Ground Ball’.
I’m changing the format slightly this year, not least with the switch from Sunday to Monday morning. I’ll be concentrating primarily on things that catch my attention while watching and listening to games over the course of the preceding week. That will then lead on to my preview of the ‘early’ games that are scheduled for the working week ahead, which will be incorporated into WHGB this year rather than in a separate post.
For the uninitiated, we’ve published a preview of the games that will take place at a convenient time for fans in the UK (i.e. games with first pitch scheduled for before midnight) every ‘regular season’ Monday since the start of the 2007 season. Start times are listed in British Summer Time (BST) and the probable pitching match-ups are included to help you plan your baseball week. We then publish a similar preview on Saturday and Sunday for the early games being played on those days.
A great way to start
We all hoped that the Yankees and Red Sox would serve up a great game to start the season and they didn’t disappoint with Boston recovering from an early 5-1 deficit to win 9-7. It took the usual four hours that you always seem to get when these two teams come together, which isn’t ideal when it means you finally get to bed at 5 a.m. but is easy to live with when those four hours are packed with action.
It wasn’t a great game in the traditional sense. There was no tight pitching duel despite the quality of the hurlers involved and baseball coaches across the world would have tutted at some of the fundamental mistakes being made by the best players around (the Red Sox’s handling of the double-steal, several hitters coasting out of the batter’s box taking it for granted that they had swatted a home run, Brett Gardner’s poor decision to throw home rather than to third base etc). However, from a fan’s point of view, such Opening Night rustiness only added to the drama and we had plenty of exciting moments to add into the mix as well, from back-to-back jacks and the double steal which allowed Gardner to score from third (exciting from the Yankees’ perspective even if the Red Sox will see it as a self-inflicted wound), to Youkilis’ two-run triple and Pedroia’s homer into the Green Monster seats.
As for ESPN’s coverage, it was a case of things changing but things staying the same. Orel Hershiser has joined Jon Miller and Joe Morgan in the booth this year and he fitted into their routine seamlessly, adding his “fastball window” phrase (as in “Beckett throws his curve out of the fastball window”) into the Sunday Night lexicon alongside all the old favourites. Jon broke out a “slide piece” reference early on to leave us in no doubt that baseball is back. They’ve come up with a few new touches to the production, most notably the ESPN Axis camera shot and using a traffic light system for balls, strikes and outs, but by and large it was a comforting return to normal service: a decent job overall marred a little by the desire to turn every feature into an opportunity to promote some company or product and cheered by some unintentionally funny comments from Joe.
Morganism of the night: Joe using all of his Hall-of-Fame experience to explain to us that Curtis Granderson hitting a long home run in his first at-bat with the Yankees was “better than going 0-for-10 and looking for his first hit”.
Lots to look forward to
The sheer number of games baseball teams play is part of what makes it such a compelling sport to follow. By the time we get to next Monday morning, 92 games would have been played (subject to any postponements) . Each one will provide multiple storylines and memorable moments, many experienced in a variety of ways by different people due to personal allegiances and emotional investments, be it the team you support, your fantasy players or simply players you like to see do well/badly.
I’ll be setting my alarm tonight for 3.00 a.m. so that I’m awake for the A’s opener against the Mariners and I’ll be living every pitch, taking it all far too personally considering it’s only one game of 162. Such is the irrational life of a fan. One of the joys of Opening Day/Night is seeing new recruits wearing your team’s colours for the first time and it will be great to see Ben Sheets on the mound in green and gold. It probably will not be quite so much fun seeing Felix Hernandez pitching against us, but if you’re going to win your first game, you might as well do so against one of the very best hurlers around.
Plenty of pitchers
Normally I like to highlight the games with the best pitching match-ups, but that’s difficult on Opening Day when aces collide all over the place. If I had to pick out one match-up today then I would go for Verlander-Greinke, closely followed by Johnson-Santana and Jimenez-Gallardo. There are two other pitchers worthy of a special mention, The Indians’ Jake Westbrook and the Blue Jays’ Shaun Marcum both missed the entire 2009 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery (the replacement of the ulnar collateral ligament in their throwing elbow). After a long period of rehab and recovery, their reward is an Opening Day start.
The Rockies’ Jeff Francis also sat out the 2009 season following arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder. He was scheduled to make his return on Friday in Colorado’s early game against the San Diego Padres, but that was put on hold after he experienced soreness after his final Spring Training outing in the same shoulder that was operated on. One man’s misfortune creates an opportunity for another and in this case it’s Greg Smith who gets a chance in the Rockies’ rotation. (Edit: Smith pitched on Tuesday instead, taking a loss against the Brewers)
D-Train rolling again?
The biggest comeback of the week has to be that of Detroit Tigers pitcher Dontrelle Willis. His days as a top starting pitcher (not least his 2005 season with the Marlins: 22-10, 2.63 ERA) have seemed a distant memory over the last two years with Detroit. He’s made just 14 starts during that period, putting up a 8.27 ERA, and he spent most of the 2009 season on the DL due to an anxiety disorder. He was an afterthought heading into Spring Training, his expected contribution to the Tigers’ assault on the AL Central division only being the problems caused by his $12m salary.
Yet out of nowhere, something like the old D-Train has emerged this spring. With his flamboyant leg kick and infectious smile, he’s an easy guy to get behind and will enter his start on Thursday against the Royals with a lot of people hoping that he can be a force once again.
This working week’s schedule of early games
Monday 5 April
18.05. Philadelphia at Washington (Roy Halladay – Jon Lannan)
18.10. St. Louis at Cincinnati (Chris Carpenter – Aaron Harang)
18.10. Florida at NY Mets (Josh Johnson – Johan Santana)
18.35. LA Dodgers at Pittsburgh (Vicente Padilla – Zack Duke)
19.05. Cleveland at Chicago Sox (Jake Westbrook – Mark Buehrle)
19.05. Toronto at Texas (Shaun Marcum – Scott Feldman)
19.10. Colorado at Milwaukee (Ubaldo Jimenez – Yovani Gallardo)
21.10. Detroit at Kansas City (Justin Verlander – Zack Greinke)
21.10. Chicago Cubs at Atlanta (Carlos Zambrano – Derek Lowe)
22.10. San Diego at Arizona (Jon Garland – Dan Haren)
Tuesday 6 April
No early games
Wednesday 7 April
18.10. Colorado at Milwaukee (Aaron Cook – Doug Davis)
19.05. San Francisco at Houston (Matt Cain – Brett Myers)
Thursday 8 April
17.35. St. Louis at Cincinnati (Brad Penny – Bronson Arroyo)
17.35. LA Dodgers at Pittsburgh (Chad Billingsley – Paul Maholm)
19.05. Toronto at Texas (Ricky Romero – C.J. Wilson)
19.10. Detroit at Kansas City (Dontrelle Willis – Brian Bannister)
20.35. Seattle at Oakland (Doug Fister – Brett Anderson)
21.35. Philadelphia at Washington (Kyle Kendrick – Craig Stammen)
Friday 9 April
18.05. Cleveland at Detroit (David Huff - Rick Porcello)
20.05. Toronto at Baltimore (Brandon Morrow – Brad Bergesen)
21.10. San Diego at Colorado (Clayton Richard – Jorge De La Rosa)
21.35. Atlanta at San Francisco (Tim Hudson – Jonathan Sanchez)
All the above games can be followed via various resources on MLB.com (Gameday, At Bat with Gameday Audio and MLB.tv), while ESPN America’s MLB schedule can be found here. A complete schedule of MLB games can be found on MLB.com.
(Technical note: probable pitchers are always liable to change, as can the fixtures. Last year I took this into account by adding ‘Update’ notes to the comments section. My plan this year is to update the main post itself and then leave a note in the comments to explain what I’ve updated)