‘Honor’ of open­ing day start is still big

The Tribune (SLO) - - Sports - BY HOWARD FENDRICH

WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.

As spring train­ing neared its con­clu­sion, a re­porter men­tioned to Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als man­ager Dave Martinez that Max Scherzer was not pre­cisely on sched­ule to start on open­ing day.

“He’s go­ing to be lined up,” Martinez said with a laugh. “Come Thurs­day at 1:05, he’ll be on the mound.”

Of course he will. Scherzer is, af­ter all, one of the best pitch­ers in all of base­ball, a three­time Cy Young Award win­ner and run­ner-up last sea­son. So it makes per­fect sense that when Wash­ing­ton hosts the NL East ri­val New York Mets this week, Scherzer will take on the pitcher who topped him in the NL vot­ing, Ja­cob deGrom.

“It def­i­nitely has its pres­tige,” Scherzer said. “It’s sym­bolic. It’s an honor to get the ball in that sit­u­a­tion.”

That’s be­cause even in this data-driven age in base­ball, when an­a­lyt­ics and anal­y­sis are sup­posed to be re­plac­ing “gut feel” and sen­ti­ment when it comes to mak­ing any and all de­ci­sions, grant­ing an open­ing day start to a par­tic­u­lar pitcher be­cause of his sta­tus rather than his sta­tis­tics is some­thing of a rem­nant of a by­gone era. So what if your team, say, is fac­ing an all-righty lineup? If a right-han­der seems like the proper guy to send out there for Game 1, man­agers tend to do it.

“There’s still a hi­er­ar­chy on your pitch­ing staff. And cer­tainly when you have es­tab­lished, vet­eran guys, it still mat­ters to them,” said Hous­ton Astros man­ager A.J. Hinch, who will use Justin Ver­lan­der on Thurs­day against the Tampa Bay Rays and 2018 AL Cy Young Award win­ner Blake Snell. “It also mat­ters to your team. Peo­ple want to name guys ‘aces.’ ”

The choice is of­ten an ob­vi­ous one, such as for Mets-Na­tion­als and Astros-Rays.

Other times, though, it can get com­pli­cated, and this year is no ex­cep­tion.

Take the Los An­ge­les Dodgers. Their nat­u­ral pick would Clay­ton Ker­shaw, but the lefty is be­gin­ning the sea­son on the in­jured list. Walker Buehler and Rich Hill were ruled out, too. So the World Se­ries run­ners-up the past two years are go­ing with Hyun-Jin Ryu against Zach Greinke, an eas­ier pick for the Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs.

Some­times, there’s not a bevy of op­ti­mal op­tions. Com­ing off a 115-loss sea­son, the Bal­ti­more Ori­oles planned to go with Alex Cobb to face the New York Yan­kees on Thurs­day, be­fore the righty had groin sore­ness in his fi­nal ex­hi­bi­tion tuneup Sun­day. Cobb was 5-15 with a 4.90 ERA in 2018.

Fact is, Bal­ti­more’s top two other starters – “top” be­ing rel­a­tive, of course – also each took at least 15 L’s a year ago. Yan­kees man­ager Aaron Boone coun­ters with Masahiro Tanaka, be­cause Luis Severino is side­lined with right shoul­der in­flam­ma­tion.

It’ll be Tanaka’s fourth start in the past five open­ing days for New York, which went 0-3 in his oth­ers.

Seat­tle Mariners man­ager Scott Ser­vais went away from tra­di­tion for his team’s opener against the Oak­land Ath­let­ics in Ja­pan last week, by­pass­ing Felix Her­nan­dez, who had made 10 con­sec­u­tive Game 1 starts, the long­est ac­tive streak in the ma­jors.

In­stead, Marco Gon­za­lez and Yu­sei Kikuchi started for Seat­tle in the two over­seas games that of­fi­cially got the sea­son go­ing.

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