Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Second Best Sports Time of the Year

The stretch that runs from opening week of the NFL through the final game of the World Series remains my favorite time of the year for sports. The start of the football season, which is the first real precursor to fall, serves as nice complement to the conclusion of the baseball season. And with the culmination of the post-season in October, everything rises to one final fever pitch before winter.

However, the run that began with the college basketball conference tournaments in the second week of March to this first week of April is easily a close second. Tonight marks the end of this particular segment of the sports’ calendar with the NCAA men’s basketball championship, positioned side-by-side with the first full slate of the baseball season.

It’s not that these baseball games are particularly important; in fact, the unique feel to this time of year is really more a symbolic boosting of the spirits than the “all eyes on every game” frenzy that characterizes the late summer and early fall.

Of course, the wild flurry of action that brings a college basketball to its end measures up well with any drama that the other major sporting events can offer. As I watch Illinois and North Carolina play the last real important team game until summer is done (sorry NBA, but you’re just not cutting it these days…), my excitement for the start of the baseball season still buzzes steadily in the background.

First Reflections off the Diamond
It is amazing that the scenario that was played out the most on the New York airwaves this off-season was this narrative: Pedro Martinez, he of the 105-pitch arm, lasts six or seven innings in a given game. After a typically dominant performance, he leaves with the lead and entrusts that lead to a very sketchy bullpen. Sitting in the dugout, he watches a W turn into a ND, and for his team, a W turns into a L. And of course, in Game #1, his first start as a New York Met, that is exactly what played out.

Opening Day is Opening Day, i.e. there are 161 games left, but what a gut-wrenching, ridiculous loss for the “new-look” Mets. On a day when their pitchers evoked memories of Tom Seaver, thanks to a combined 16 strikeouts, the Mets were done in by a 9th inning explosion that sent the fans at the Great American Ballpark into a frenzy. It went from a convincing and, with all the strikeouts taken into consideration, a dominating win, to a blown save and a 9th inning loss.
Pedro’s start was marred only by a shaky beginning. The Reds jumped out to a 3-0 lead thanks to a 1st inning home run by Adam Dunn. And that was it. From that point on, Martinez couldn’t be touched. Consider this stretch:

Bottom 1ST B:0 S:3 O:3
Following Dunn’s two-out home run, Joe Randa strikes out on foul tip.

Bottom 2ND B:3 S:3 O:1
Rich Aurilia strikes out on foul tip.

Bottom 2ND B:3 S:3 O:2
Jason LaRue called out on strikes.

Bottom 2ND B:3 S:3 O:3
Paul Wilson strikes out swinging

Bottom 3RD B:4 S:2 O:0
D'Angelo Jimenez walks.

Bottom 3RD B:0 S:3 O:1
Ken Griffey, Jr. strikes out swinging.

Bottom 3RD B:0 S:3 O:2
Sean Casey strikes out swinging. D'Angelo Jimenez steals (1) 2nd base.

Bottom 3RD B:1 S:3 O:3
Austin Kearns strikes out swinging.

Bottom 4TH B:2 S:3 O:1
Adam Dunn strikes out swinging.

Bottom 4TH B:2 S:3 O:2
Joe Randa strikes out swinging.

Bottom 4TH B:0 S:0 O:3
Rich Aurilia lines out to center fielder Carlos Beltran.

Bottom 5TH B:2 S:3 O:1
Jason LaRue strikes out swinging.

Bottom 5TH B:1 S:3 O:2
Paul Wilson called out on strikes.

Bottom 5TH B:3 S:3 O:3
D'Angelo Jimenez called out on strikes.

Bottom 6TH B:4 S:1 O:0
Ken Griffey, Jr. walks.

Bottom 6TH B:1 S:2 O:2
Sean Casey grounds into double play, second baseman Kazuo Matsui to shortstop Jose Reyes to first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. Ken Griffey, Jr. out at 2nd.

Bottom 6TH B:3 S:2 O:3
Austin Kearns grounds out, third baseman David Wright to first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz.

By my count, that’s 17 batters faced, two base runners via walks and 12 strikeouts.

While Pedro was befuddling the Reds’ offense, the Mets would tie the Reds at 3-3, and eventually build a 6-4 lead that they took into that ill-fated 9th.

Ironically, it wasn’t the suspicious cast of characters with the job titles of “middle reliever” and “set-up man” that had Mets fans ready to drive off the Metropolitan area bridges in the early stages of their commute home. No, it was the reliever who is supposed to be $$$ in the bank.

Without recording an out, Braden Looper gave up a single and a home run to Dunn that tied it, and then an improbable home run to the next batter, Joe Randa, that ended it.

More than being grateful just to have baseball back to serve as a backdrop to my workday, this game got me to thinking. Of course I don’t believe that any one Opening Day loss can throw a dagger through a season, but how about at least letting some air out of the balloon?

If not the worst Opening Day loss that I’ve seen, and it might well be that, it’s definitely the worst first game loss for a manager that I can remember.

Still Manning the Hot Corner
Had to give a quick mention to Jeff Cirillo, who is back in Milwaukee this season. I don’t know if there’s anybody who’s challenging him for playing time, but for today he was hitting in the sixth spot in the Brewers’ line-up and playing third base. In case you don’t remember, Cirillo had a six- or seven-year stretch in which he established himself as one of the better hitting third basemen in the game.

From 1996-2001, he had an OBP of .390 or higher four times, had four season of 35+ doubles and four seasons of hitting .321 or better.

He wound up signing with Seattle before the start of the 2002 season and seemingly forgot how to hit. Or maybe it had something to do with going from the best hitting park in the game to one of the tougher ones. Whatever the reasons for his freefall, he was generally considered the biggest in disappointment in baseball that season, going from .313/.364/.473 to .249/.301/.328.

After three seasons of his skills’ sudden disappearance, and only a combined 120 games over the past two years, he’s back for one more go with the Brewers, the team he started his career with in 1994.

Today he went 2-3 with a HR, 2B, 2 R, 1 BB and 2 RBI and was the catalyst in a 9-2 Brewer win against the Pirates.

Of course the biggest bold type for tomorrow will be reserved for Dmitri Young who hit three home runs for the Tigers today against the Royals. Oddly enough, the Royals were also the opposition the first time this happened, back in 1988.

On that day at Royals Stadium (4/8/88), George Bell hit three home runs, all off Brett Saberhagen, in a 5-3 Toronto win.

The only other time a player hit three dingers to start a season, the other 1985 Cy Young winner was victimized. On April 4, 1994, the immortal Tuffy Rhodes hit three off of a fading Dwight Gooden, yet the Mets still won the game 12-8.

Young’s homers came off Lima (2) and MacDougal (1).

Another Dwight Gooden connection from today’s Kansas City-Detroit game? The Tigers’ Jeremy Bonderman (22) became the youngest pitcher to start an Opening Day game since the Doctor in 1986. Gooden was 20 and coming off the best season a pitcher would have in 1980s.

Early Returns
Johnson (NYY) 6 15 2 61.50
Vazquez (ARI) 1.2 710 0237.80
Halsey (ARI) 4 26 0 24.50

First Trip to a Ballpark Near Me

I’ll be driving on the highways that lead to the Bronx tomorrow, for the first time this season. The weather report is a good one, so that automatically has me upbeat. Having a day off from work, and the prospect of Yankees-Red Sox doesn’t hurt either…

I will try and offer a report sometime tomorrow night.

Until then, enjoy the games.

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