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The Monday Takeaway
Forty-six innings, 25 hits, two runs, 16 walks, 45 strikeouts.

No, that’s not the line of a good reliever with a bloated strand rate. It’s the line the National League Central’s pitchers combined to post over the course of their games yesterday. Unfortunately for two of the clubs, they happened to be playing divisional foes.

The Reds dropped their opening battle to the Cardinals, but they may yet win the war, because Johnny Cueto could scarcely have made a better return to the mound. A 2.8-win pitcher in 2012, the 28-year-old Cueto sat out nearly all of the 2013 season with a nagging lat strain that flared up thrice and forced him to the disabled list each time, for a total of 117 missed games. On Monday, the right-hander matched zeroes with Adam Wainwright until the top of the seventh inning, when Yadier Molina went yard for the only tally of the game. Kevin Siegrist, Carlos Martinez, and Trevor Rosenthal provided a friendly reminder that it’s a bad idea to fall behind the Cardinals in the late innings, but Reds fans have plenty to be excited about despite the defeat.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, the Pirates sent their fans home happy behind six dominant innings from Francisco Liriano, efficient relief work, and a 10th-inning walkoff blast by Neil Walker. Manager Clint Hurdle’s bullpen ranked third in the majors with a 2.89 ERA last year, an accomplishment made more impressive by its volume of work: 545 2/3 innings, 85 more than either of the clubs (Braves, Royals) that placed above it. Four bullpen frames into 2014—during which Tony Watson, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, and Bryan Morris combined to throw 37 of 50 pitches (74 percent) for strikes—the group is unblemished. They sent the Cubs back to their team hotel with the bitter taste of an 0-for-11 line with runners in scoring position, which added to Chicago’s league-worst .218 mark in that department last year. Rick Renteria watched the heart of his order go 0-for-10—wasting seven innings of shutout ball from Jeff Samardzija and two more from Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and James Russell—in his managerial debut.

To top off the division’s tremendous day on the mound, Yovani Gallardo started his bounce-back bid on a high note, helping the Brewers to blank the Braves. Gallardo worked six clean frames before handing things off to the bullpen, which—in a shock to Jim Henderson fantasy owners worldwide—was anchored by Francisco Rodriguez.

And so, the National League Central squads will carry a 0.39 ERA into Tuesday’s games. Unfortunately, because of the matchups, they’ll bring a .183 average along with it.

Quick Hits from Monday

  • Cueto’s excellent outing wasn’t the only feel-good, comeback story to emerge from a losing effort—in fact, in that department, Grady Sizemore might have him beat. Batting sixth and playing center field in his return to the majors after more than two years away from the diamond, Sizemore picked up a second-inning single and then accounted for the Red Sox’ only runs against the Orioles with a fourth-inning home run. It was Sizemore’s first big fly since July 15, 2011, a span of 990 days; that blast also came at Camden Yards.
  • Manager Ron Washington’s plan to use converted reliever Tanner Scheppers in place of Yu Darvish on Opening Day unraveled quickly. The hard-throwing righty survived four innings, but he coughed up six runs in the second—four on a grand slam by Jimmy Rollins—and another in the fourth. Texas’ offense bailed Scheppers out of a loss in his rotation debut, saddling Cliff Lee with eight runs on 11 hits in five innings, but suffice it to say that Fernando Valenzuela, Scheppers is not.
  • Just about everyone loves Opening Day, but you know who doesn’t? The A’s. Bob Melvin’s club last scored an Opening Day run in the fourth inning of its first game of 2012, when the Athletics played the Mariners in Japan. Since then, bupkis—and that’s despite Josh Donaldson’s 400-foot wall-ball with a runner in scoring position, and a subsequent opportunity with the bases loaded and one out. Jim Johnson coughed up a pair in the top of the ninth, and the A’s have now lost a major-league-record 10 consecutive openers.
  • That Indians-Athletics matchup also produced the most intriguing replay review on the first day of the expanded system, when Asdrubal Cabrera hit a comebacker to Sonny Gray, who threw home to retire Michael Brantley. Cleveland skipper Terry Francona asked the umpires to review the play, alleging that A’s catcher John Jaso illegally blocked the plate, and the crew decided it was worth another look. The call was ultimately upheld.

The Defensive Play of the Day
One more thing from the nightcap at the Coliseum: You might want to reconsider your final-round #FaceOfMLB vote after you see this gem.

What to Watch for on Tuesday

  • Cleanup hitters are supposed to look like this, or this, or this. But this guy, on the left? That’s your cleanup hitter?! Yes indeed, says Astros manager Bo Porter, who decided to bump outfielder Robbie Grossman into Jose Altuve’s old no. 2 slot to begin the season.

    The schedule-makers made us wait an extra day to marvel at the 5’ 5” second baseman occupying prime real estate in the heart of the order, but when the Yankees and Astros become the last clubs to get their 2014 campaigns underway, we’ll get to see just that. Altuve is set to dig in against southpaw CC Sabathia, which—according to Porter—might mean that Altuve will bat third, ahead of Jason Castro, in the opener. He’ll look to provide a little thunder in support of Scott Feldman, who makes his Astros debut after splitting last year between the Cubs and Orioles (7:10 p.m. ET).

  • Feldman won’t be the only pitcher looking to make a strong first impression this evening—Brett Anderson and A.J. Burnett will, too, and that’s not to mention Scott Kazmir (but more on him in a moment).

    Anderson gets a cushy assignment in his bid to show the Rockies that he was worth the trade cost of Drew Pomeranz, who was once the centerpiece of Colorado’s haul for Ubaldo Jimenez. The former Athletic missed most of last year with a stress fracture in his right foot, but not before logging more innings than the starting pitcher in a game from which he was scratched. He’ll strive for some, um, more conventional accomplishments in his first start for manager Walt Weiss, who will give him the ball against the Marlins (7:10 p.m. ET).

    About an hour later, A.J. Burnett takes the bump for the first time since he crossed the Keystone State and signed with the Phillies. The 36-year-old’s first task is quieting the new-look Rangers lineup, now featuring Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, in Arlington. Left-handed hitters fared much better than righties when facing Burnett last year, compiling a .363 on-base percentage in 395 plate appearances. Expect Burnett to go to his curveballthe only pitch that stymied glove-side batters for him in 2013—early and often in his bid to shut down Ron Washington’s new toys (8:05 p.m. ET).

  • With Jarrod Parker out for the year and A.J. Griffin sidelined for the first few weeks, there’s a bit more pressure on Athletics newcomer Scott Kazmir to live up to his two-year, $22 million contract from the get-go. PECOTA, putting more stock in his pre-2013 collapse than his 2.5-WARP revival with the Indians, projects the 30-year-old southpaw to come in at 0.1 wins below replacement this year. Kazmir’s first chance to prove it wrong comes in tonight’s battle with his previous employer, which will send fellow 2013 revelation Corey Kluber to the mound at the Coliseum (10:05 p.m. ET).

Thank you for reading

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Jeff Samardzija throws 7 scoreless innings and is not mentioned in the "good pitching by NL Central teams" article.
Whoops, definitely an omission there. Added a note on Samardzija and the Cubs staff. Thanks.
I've been looking around the internet today for a good daily recap. Lots of places had "opening day thoughts" which were good (like Ben Linbergh's here) but I knew they wouldn't be daily. This one hits the sweet spot though, keep up the great work!
Francona did not challenge the play at the plate; apparently, a review of that type of play is at the discretion of the umpire. Francona did ask the umpire to take a look at it, though.
Thanks for pointing out that distinction—I'll make the change above.
Billy Hamilton had some Ks too ;-)...oops, never mind! Lou Brown would be proud!
Jason LaRue being able to play again would be a feel good comeback story connected to Cueto.

Cueto playing again just reminds me to wonder why he wasn't given a lifetime ban for ending another player's career with a kick to the head.
I'm noticing a very AL-centric tilt on the "What You Need to Know" bullets so far.

Yesterday's and today's bullets:
What to Watch: 7 bullets /7 AL subjects
Quick Hits: 3 bullets / 3 AL subjects
Did you miss the whole "Aces of the NL Central" part?