Taming Opening Day start a unique challenge
Thirteen pitchers will experience taking hill to start Game 1 for the first time
PHOENIX -- On Monday, White Sox left-hander Chris Sale will receive one of the highest honors a Major League pitcher can earn -- he'll get the ball for his club on Opening Day.
It's a task that isn't for the faint of heart. Some of baseball's best pitchers have struggled on Opening Days past. If being a big league starter is about rhythm and routine, Opening Day bucks that trend entirely.
"You can't let it overwhelm you," Sale said. "It's going to be electric, it's going to be exciting, there's going to be a lot more energy, so you're really going to have to stay focused. I'm not trying to do too much."
Easier said than done.
Fortunately for Sale, all he has to do is look a few lockers down for some high-end advice. Fellow White Sox starter Jake Peavy took the ball on Opening Day four years in a row, from 2006-09, for the San Diego Padres and posted a 1.33 ERA in those games.
"The more you do anything, the more comfortable you are at being able to do that thing," Peavy said. "I'm sure next year on Opening Day, his nerves will be a little bit more at ease, and he'll have a better understanding.
"He's going to be excited, he's going to be amped up like everybody is going to be. But once the game starts, it turns into another game and you fall right back into the swing of things as soon as the first pitch is thrown, really. That'll be the biggest thing, is controlling your emotions leading up to it."
With the Twins' and Orioles' announcements of their Opening Day starters on Wednesday -- Vance Worley and Jason Hammel, respectively -- all 30 teams have now committed to an ace for their first game.
Of those 30 slated to start the opener, 13 pitchers will be doing so for the first time: Matt Harrison (Rangers), Jhoulys Chacin (Rockies), Bud Norris (Astros), Matt Cain (Giants), Brett Anderson (A's), Jeff Samardzija (Cubs), A.J. Burnett (Pirates), R.A. Dickey (Blue Jays), Jon Niese (Mets), Cole Hamels (Phillies), Sale, Worley and Hammel.
Cain may have the toughest task of them all, opening the season for San Francisco in a hostile Dodger Stadium as the Giants begin the defense of their World Series crown.
"You almost have to think of it as a normal start, but it's not," Cain said after he earned the nod in February. "You definitely are a little more amped up about it. You're going out there to start the first game of the season. It's always a huge honor."
But earning the honor with a great track record doesn't always translate to Opening Day success. Some of the game's top pitchers have struggled to get their teams off on the right foot.
In nine Opening Day starts, Yankees ace CC Sabathia has produced a 5.66 ERA. Justin Verlander has never earned a win on Opening Day -- though he did toss eight scoreless innings last season -- and has amassed a 5.97 ERA in his five starts.
Simply put, taming Opening Day is a separate beast. Padres manager Bud Black, who started four Opening Days as a player (three with Kansas City and one with Cleveland), noted that the selection process goes far beyond talent alone.
"It's reflective of how you feel about a certain pitcher and what they've done for you in the past, whether it was in the last year or cumulative years," said Black, who tabbed Edinson Volquez for the second consecutive spring. "The kind of makeup, temperament they have -- they can handle all the fanfare and all the hoopla. It definitely is a feather in the cap."
For San Diego, Peavy was an Opening Day wiz, allowing just four earned runs in his 27 innings. He held the Giants scoreless for six innings in 2007 and kept the Astros scoreless for seven the following season.
What was his secret?
"Once you get on the mound, throw that first pitch to whoever it may be, the game has to be the same game that you're going to play 162 of after," Peavy said.
Freddy Garcia, recently released by the Padres, made three Opening Day starts for the Mariners from 2001-03.
"There's a lot of distraction," he said. "A lot of guys don't concentrate the way they should. For me, I did it three times. That's an honor for me in my career.
"I don't think it's any different, but that all depends on how you handle it. There's a lot going on off the field -- ceremonies and stuff. You've got to be prepared. Get ready for the game. Don't think too much about what's going on."
What about when the game starts? What about when the ball's in your hand and that long winter is finally over?
"Just enjoy it, man," Garcia said. "It doesn't happen every day. Be prepared, but then just enjoy that day."