Aces come up big to set tone for new season
Starting pitchers put up a lot of zeroes on Opening Day
It's a concept that is as much a part of baseball's fabric as colorful bunting and baseline introductions on Opening Day: Starting pitching sets the tone.As the 2012 season starts up in earnest, it's evident the sport's mound aces are serving notice that this will be another Year of the Pitcher. Leave it to the reigning American League Cy Young-Most Valuable Player to be right there in the middle of it, too, pitching eight shutout innings against the Red Sox on Thursday. Justin Verlander had to settle for a no-decision when Jose Valverde blew his first save since 2010, but he was glad to bask in the Tigers' walkoff win. "Obviously it's nice to get the [team] win, but to be able to go out there and pitch eight strong and only use one bullpen guy, that's my job," Verlander said. He's not the only stud starter doing his job and doing it up to that high standard. All you need to do is look at the scoreboard from Thursday's first multiple-game slate of the season to figure that out. Three starters went seven or more innings without allowing a run on Thursday alone. Overall, 15 of the 20 starters who have worked thus far have allowed one run or fewer in at least five innings of work, 12 of those going at least seven. That's a bucketful of gems already. Granted, we're talking about every team's ace out there as the season begins. But through the first 10 games of a season that will see 2,430 of them, starters are off to a 1.59 ERA, allowing just 23 earned runs in 131 1/3 innings so far. Overall, only 33 runs were scored during Thursday's seven-game slate of openers, making the season total thus far a mere 47 through 10 games. By comparison, last year's Opening Day slate of six games saw a combined ERA of 2.91 with 41 runs scored. By the time 11 more games were played the next day and every Opening Day starter had done his thing, the starters' ERA was up to 4.04, with a total of 117 runs scored in those first 17 total games. When starters first set the tone for 2012, there was nothing lost in translation in the Tokyo Dome. Felix Hernandez, the 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner, led off the season with his eight-inning, one-run gem in the opener against the A's in Tokyo -- but was left with a no-decision. Consider this: No Opening Day starter had gone eight or more innings, allowed one earned run or fewer and settled for a no-decision since Pat Hentgen of the Orioles in 2001, until King Felix did. Now it's happened three times already this year, with Hernandez being joined Thursday by Verlander and Cleveland's Justin Masterson. It had happened to Opening Day starters only 18 times in Major League history prior to this season. You know who you can blame? Yep, you got it -- opposing starting pitchers. (Well, that and a couple of ill-timed blown saves.) For instance, in Tokyo, Hernandez's opposing starter did quite well also, with Oakland's Brandon McCarthy allowing just one earned run in seven innings of work. In Detroit on Thursday, Jon Lester dealt seven strong innings, allowing just one run on Alex Avila's RBI double in the seventh. "I made one mistake," Lester said. "Against a guy like that, that's what beats you." It's been that kind of year so far, from the very beginning in Tokyo. Bartolo Colon of the A's and Jason Vargas of the Mariners both followed through with solid starts. The Cardinals' Kyle Lohse kept up the good work and then some in Wednesday's U.S. opener, taking a no-hitter into the seventh. Josh Johnson allowed three earned runs in six innings in that one -- that's considered a quality start, but at 4.50 he currently ranks 18th in ERA among the first 20 starters who have pitched. Then came Thursday, a day dominated by pitching from the start. Some of the day's highlights for the men starting this season up right: In his first start since Sept. 2, 2010, left-hander Johan Santana was brilliant in putting the Mets in position to win their opener over the Braves at Citi Field. He pitched five shutout innings, giving up the ball to manager Terry Collins after 84 pitches. Stephen Strasburg pitched seven innings in his first Opening Day start, allowing a run on five hits and striking out five Cubs. Strasburg came back for five strong starts last year after Tommy John surgery interrupted his 2010 season, and he picked up right were he left off -- again. In his first Opening Day assignment, the Reds' Johnny Cueto threw seven shutout innings against the new-look Marlins. After missing the start of the season a year ago with a biceps injury, the 26-year-old right-hander wound up with a 2.31 ERA in 24 starts in 2011 and showed Thursday he's poised to do big things in 2012. Masterson dealt eight strong innings against the Blue Jays only to see closer Chris Perez unleash a blown save in the ninth of a game that went on to become the longest Opening Day game ever played, a 7-4 Toronto win in 16 innings. Allowing only two hits while striking out 10, Masterson made quite the opening impression in 2012. Roy Halladay continued to prove he's a horse worthy of leading any staff, giving the Phillies every bit of the mound support they needed in a 1-0 victory over the Pirates. He pitched eight shutout innings while allowing two hits to match Verlander's effort. "He was definitely on today," catcher Carlos Ruiz said of the Phillies' Opening Day stud. "It's like he hit a switch. He turned it on, and he was ready to go." He wasn't alone. Baseball's aces almost all have turned on the switch, and scoreboards everywhere are filling up with zeroes.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. Reporter Paul Casella contributed to this article. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.