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April 1, 2013

What You Need to Know

Opening Day Madness

by Daniel Rathman

The Sunday Takeaway
If you are planning a baseball trivia night or expect to attend one later this year, last night’s 2013 opener supplied plenty of nuggets and answers to study. It was the Astros’ first game as an American League West club—and that was only the beginning.

Fittingly, the Rangers’ designated hitter, the first designated hitter employed against the Astros in their history as a junior-circuit club, was longtime Houston fan favorite Lance Berkman, who went 2-for-4. Unfortunately for Ron Washington’s club, Berkman and Nelson Cruz, who went 2-for-3, accounted for nearly all of its offense, as the other seven starters combined to go 2-for-25.

More trivia? The Astros’ own designated hitter, the first one that they have ever used in a home game, was Carlos Pena, who went 1-for-4 with three strikeouts. With Pena scuffling against left-hander Matt Harrison, Justin Maxwell and Rick Ankiel picked up the run-scoring slack. Maxwell, who came into the game with four career triples in 612 big-league plate appearances, delivered a 2-for-3 effort with a pair of three-baggers on Sunday night. Ankiel, who produced a torrid .413/.463/.826 triple-slash line during spring training, buried the Rangers with a pinch-hit, three-run homer in the bottom of the sixth inning, putting the Astros ahead 7-2, just moments after Texas halved Houston’s 4-0 lead.

The three-hour-long contest went into the books as an 8-2 Astros victory, but the comfortable margin did not preclude one of manager Bo Porter’s pitchers from earning a save. No, not Jose Veras—or, for that matter, Hector Ambriz or Rhiner Cruz. The first save of the 2013 season belongs to Erik Bedard, Houston’s fifth starter, who worked 3 1/3 innings of scoreless, one-hit relief after bailing starter Bud Norris out of a sixth-inning jam.

And, after all of that, the Astros—almost universally picked to finish with the worst record in the league—are over .500 for the first time since the fifth game (April 10) of last season and atop their division for the first time since April 20, 2007.

Matchup of the Day
Few pitchers can claim to have dominated Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen on any particular day last season, as the 26-year-old broke out offensively to the tune of a .328 TAv. But the Cubs’ Jeff Samardzija—whom he’ll face this afternoon—is a member of that selective club, and he, too, will take the field at PNC Park looking to build on a breakout year.

In their most recent meeting, on September 8, 2012, Samardzija did something that only two starting pitchers managed to do all year: deal McCutchen a hat trick without allowing him a hit. The other starter who accomplished the feat was Max Scherzer, who fanned Pittsburgh’s number-three hitter three times as part of a 15-strikeout outing on May 20.  

In order to exact revenge this afternoon, McCutchen likely will need to find an answer for hard stuff on the outer half of the plate. As the afore-linked matchup analysis page shows, Samardzija fed McCutchen a steady diet of fastballs, cutters, and splitters that day, after relying more heavily on his slider in their previous encounters. And, it appears that was a sound strategy, because McCutchen has struggled (in relative terms) against right-handed heaters in that part of the zone throughout his career.

McCutchen will be right back in the three hole of manager Clint Hurdle’s order for the season opener, hoping to improve on his 3-for-10 lifetime line in 13 plate appearances versus Samardzija. The 28-year-old Cubs northpaw earned a victory in both of his 2012 starts against the Pirates, holding the Bucs to five combined hits over 17 innings of work along the way.

What to Watch for on Monday
With every team sending its ace to the hill, what is there that is not worth watching? Here are just three of the countless things to keep an eye on this afternoon and evening:

  • Spring training statistics may not be a harbinger of regular-season success, but tell that to Bryce Harper, who led all major leaguers with a .478 average in Grapefruit League play. The 20-year-old will try to stay hot as Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals take on Ricky Nolasco and the Marlins. Harper faced Nolasco 15 times during his rookie season—more times than any other pitcher besides Cole Hamels (also 15)—and went 4-for-14 in those plate appearances (1:05 p.m. ET).
  • Monday’s series opener between the Angels and Reds will provide another bit of trivia: It will be the first interleague series played under the new scheduling format. Johnny Cueto—who, apparently, is easily confused with Manny Ramirez—gets the ball for Cincinnati in a matchup with Jered Weaver. (4:10 p.m. ET)
     
  • The Tigers and Cardinals entrusted their respective aces, Justin Verlander and Adam Wainwright, with extensions last week. Now, they’ll give them the ball on Opening Day. Verlander, whose seven-year, $180 million deal kicks in beginning with the 2015 season, takes on the Twins and Vance Worley at Target Field (4:10 p.m. ET). Wainwright, who nabbed $97.5 million over five years just a season removed from Tommy John surgery, will duel Ian Kennedy in the desert a few hours later (10:10 p.m. ET). 

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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