I’m sure fans of many sports greet the first game of the new season with joy and anticipation.
However, there is only one Opening Day and it belongs to baseball.
Why do I contend that our Opening Day is THE Opening Day?
First, it’s seasonal. Sure, those of us in Florida have been wearing flip flops for two months by now, but for most of the country the return of baseball is the harbinger of spring. The ground is covered with the remains of the last snowstorm, but there’s a first pitch being thrown somewhere so spring is truly here.
Secondly, once baseball starts, it is with us daily. The start of the baseball season is therefore transformative for fans in a unique way. None of this “week between games” nonsense. Football fans are “dating” their sport; baseball fans are married to theirs.
But enough waxing poetic about baseball; a game was played today; let’s review.
The first two inning were marvelous.
Blake Snell started off about as sharp as a pitcher can be. Moving fastball to curveball, he cut through the top of the Astros lineup with seeming ease.
Blake Snell strikes out Alex Bregman for the first Rays strikeout of 2019! pic.twitter.com/vX1tMJQPfI— DRaysBay (@draysbay) March 28, 2019
And the Rays got off to a great start on offense, too. There had been talk in Spring Training about whether Kevin Cash might try Austin Meadows as the lead-off hitter, and there he was today, first man up. Would he be able to be that place setter, getting on base for the bats that would follow?
Well, no. He didn’t get onto base. Instead he did this:
First AB of the season?— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) March 28, 2019
That'll play. #RaysUp | #OpeningDay pic.twitter.com/eOCodGqMyd
Tommy Pham followed with a single, and Justin Verlander looked surprisingly vulnerable. But the Rays failed to plate more runs that inning.
In the second, Snell did give up a hit but continued to look sharp. And that runner was erased on a great Zunino throw to second — pop time estimated 2 seconds; velocity (throwing 127 feet) nearly 80 mph.
The Rays got two men on in the second via walk and hit by pitch but failed to bring them home.
And then someone delivered a new script.
As we moved to the third, Blake Snell’s focus seemed to dissipate. Yeah, the umpire did him no favors in Robinson Chirino’s at bat, when what should have been strike three was ball four. But Snell then walked the next batter as well, and gave George Springer, who he had kept off balance through his first at bat, a very hittable pitch that was tagged for a homer to center field. 3-1 became 4-1 in the fourth when Michael Brantley also turned on a pitch down the middle. And in the fifth Jose Altuve got hold of a fastball and it was 5-1. That would be the final score.
Meanwhile, Justin Verlander regained his mojo. Leaning on off-speed pitches more than I think is typical, he handled the Rays with ease; there was scarcely a hard hit ball. The Rays were retired twice on nine pitches; Snell barely had time to catch his breath. Verlander finished seven strong innings, striking out nine and allowing just three hits.
Snell got through six innings; next up was Jalen Beeks, who would pitch three solid innings, scattering four hits and striking out five. But with the offense in a state of suspended animation, the game was never in reach.
Some closing observations for Opening Day:
- Snell’s performance was certainly disappointing, but oddly enough I’m not losing sleep over the home runs. Yes, he grooved two pitches to very good hitters and they took advantage (and also got taken yard on what looked like a reasonably good pitch, it happens). His low strikeout total (three K’s in six innings), to me, was more troubling.
- Ji-Man Choi is now our first baseman! He mostly did fine although he seldom looked particularly graceful. There were some near misses that still went for outs, and a Michael Brantley grounder that a rangy-er guy might have turned into an out that went for a single. I’m still a little nervous about going into the season without proven first base defense. but so far Choi has held his own.
- Mike Zunino had himself a day behind the plate, throwing out both Gurriel and Brantley
- Other than Tommy Pham, most of the Rays hitters looked over-matched. Yes, kudos to Austin Meadows for the home run; Yandy Diaz did well to direct his typical hard grounder past the third baseman; and I’m not going to criticize Joey Wendle because it’s not his fault if they kept throwing AT him rather than TO him. But Mike Zunino, Willy Adames, Brandon Lowe and Kevin Kiermaier combined for eight strike outs and hardly a professional looking at bat between them.
- If we are looking for silver linings, look no farther than Jalen Beeks and Tommy Pham. Beeks pitched a solid few innings; Pham had two hits and scorched the ball in every at bat. His two outs, both caught by infielders, had exit velocities of 106.8 and 108.9.
Fortunately this is not football; we don’t have to wait a week to watch our team get this right. Now we know the Rays won’t go 162-0 but 161-1 is still possible and ought to be good for at least a Wild Card slot.