The Opening Night Takeaway
Last May, Jason Wojciechowski wrote about “Bunts That Lead to Big Things.” One of his takeaways: It makes sense to bunt “when you’re fast, and the pitcher isn’t so sure of anything he’s doing.”

That’s a lesson often applied in the lower levels of baseball, from Little League to high school, when pitchers are more likely to get rattled by adversity or need a few more PFP drills to get comfortable fielding their position. But as Jason discovered, and as we saw on Sunday, it can work against a big-league pennant hopeful, too.

After Hyun-jin Ryu’s seven-scoreless-inning bid to become the first pitcher in major-league history to collect two wins before the end of March, and after Seth Smith’s game-tying solo home run in his first Padres at-bat, the stage was set for precisely the scenario that Jason described.

Brian Wilson was out of sorts. He’d hung a 2-0 slider to Smith and walked Yasmani Grandal after earning a 1-2 count. With the go-ahead run on first in the bottom of the eighth, Bud Black might well have called for a sacrifice bunt from leadoff man Everth Cabrera anyway. But his decision was likely cemented by Wilson’s struggles and Cabrera’s speed.

Cabrera squared immediately, but Wilson couldn’t find the zone with either of his first two pitches. The 2-0 offering was a center-cut slider, which Cabrera bunted to the first-base side of the mound, far enough from Adrian Gonzalez to ensure that the pitcher was the only defender with a play. Wilson, perhaps still rattled, looked up at Gonzalez and tried to field the bunt with the outside of his glove facing the ball. Error. Runners at first and second, still nobody out.

Now armed with the chance to bunt the go-ahead run to within 90 feet of the plate, Black gave the same sign to Chris Denorfia, who failed to do his job, yet managed to do it anyway. Denorfia squared around on, jabbed at, and missed Wilson’s first-pitch slider. Third baseman Juan Uribe crashed toward the plate, expecting the ball to come his way, but failed to return to the bag on the wheel play. Grandal alertly took off for third, and catcher A.J. Ellis was left helplessly holding the ball as his counterpart collected the first stolen base of his professional career.

The Padres were done bunting. A few pitches later, Denorfia drilled a single up the middle, giving the home team a 3-1 lead that closer Huston Street would not relinquish.

There are few lessons to be learned from one club’s third game of the season and the other’s first. In the end, it’s one loss for the 2-1 Dodgers and one win for the 1-0 Padres. By game 162, Ryu’s outing, Smith’s debut, and even the rash of infield miscues will long be forgotten.

But the bottom of the eighth inning was a reminder that fundamentals matter—and that when their pitcher is struggling to throw strikes, even the best teams at the highest level sometimes forget them.

What to Watch for on Monday

  • Justin Verlander didn’t like hearing talk of his decline on the heels of his worst season since 2008, so he went out and shut everyone up in Grapefruit League play. A spotless 0.00 ERA in 20 innings, with just eight hits allowed and a 17-to-5 K:BB ratio, will do that. But the 31-year-old’s quest to prove that he’s still a perennial Cy Young Award contender, as opposed to merely an excellent, 4.4-WARP pitcher, begins in earnest in today’s duel with James Shields and the Royals. Keep an eye on his matchups with Billy Butler, who boasts seven more hits off of the hard-throwing righty than any other big-leaguer can claim. Butler is 30-for-68 lifetime against Verlander with four doubles, two homers, and an 8-to-9 BB:K ratio in 77 trips to the box (1:08 p.m. ET).
  • No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you: That really is Tanner Scheppers, the owner of zero major-league starts, toeing the rubber for the Rangers on Opening Day with the Phillies in town. The right-hander logged a 1.88 ERA in 76 relief appearances last year, and with the Rangers rotation ravaged by injuries—the most recent a neck strain suffered by Yu Darvish—manager Ron Washington is entrusting Scheppers with the coveted assignment.

    When Scheppers takes the hill at the Ballpark in Arlington Globe Life Park, he will become the second pitcher since 1945 to make his first big-league start in his team’s opener, joining—who else?—Fernando Valenzuela. The Dodgers legend took the baseball world by storm with a five-hit shutout on April 9, 1981, so the post-World War II bar is set high. Your move, Tanner (2:05 p.m. ET).

  • Pop quiz time: Can you name the last five pitchers to get the ball for the Twins on Opening Day (one of them did it twice, so this goes back to 2008)?

    This afternoon, Ricky Nolasco gets the honor with the weight of a four-year, $49 million contract on his right shoulder. Nolasco fronts a somewhat revamped Minnesota starting five, which also features Phil Hughes, and the club is anxiously awaiting the arrival of no. 3 prospect Alex Meyer. The former Marlin and Dodger has three Opening Day starts under his belt, including last year’s Miami gig, to prepare him for today’s date with Chris Sale (4:10 p.m. ET).

    Pop quiz answer: Vance Worley (2013), Carl Pavano (2011-12), Scott Baker (2010), Francisco Liriano (2009), and Livan Hernandez (2008).

  • How’s this for a pitcher being effectively wild: The last time Felix Hernandez faced the Angels, on September 22, 2013, he endured only four innings but held Mike Scioscia’s offense to a hit and four walks while fanning 10. In doing so, King Felix became the only starter since at least 1914 to record no more than 12 outs, allow no more than one run, and strike out at least 10 in the process. He’ll try to last a little deeper into tonight’s duel with Jered Weaver (10:05 p.m. ET).