The stars and chumps of Opening Day

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zambrano-standard-100405.jpgIt all started with a John Lannan pitch to Jimmy Rollins around 10 a.m ET, and ended when Denard Span’s fly ball settled into Bobby Abreu’s glove about 15 hours later.

Once again, Opening Day didn’t disappoint, as there were stellar defensive plays, dramatic home runs, and dominant pitching performances. It was everything you want out of the first full day of baseball, and reminded us how much we grew to miss the game over the last six months.

Let’s take a look at the big winners and losers from Opening Day.

STARS OF THE DAY
Albert Pujols, Cardinals:
What else is there to say about Pujols? He’s great. And if the Cincinnati Reds didn’t know that, they do now, after he goes 4-for-5 with two home runs. *That puts him on pace for 324 this season, in case you’re counting.
*This might not happen

Garrett Jones, Pirates: Anything Pujols can do, Jones can do, umm better? Well no, but it was still a fine performance for the right fielder, who was 2-for-4 with a pair of homers in a rout of the Dodgers.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Texas “Walk-off” Ranger: Poor Shaun Marcum. The Blue Jays starter had his no-hitter broken up by Vlad Guerrero in the seventh inning, then watched his lead vanish when Nelson Cruz tied it up by going opposite field off his shoe tops for a three-run blast. That all set the stage for Saltalamacchia, who completed the Rangers rally with a walk-off single over the head of a shallow outfield.

CHUMPS OF THE DAY
Carlos Zambrano, Cubs:
Zambrano has been throwing out lines about how he’s ready to “kick some (butt)” this season, and wants to “rock and roll.” Apparently, what he meant was that he was ready to “get his (butt) kicked” and wanted to let the Braves “party every day,” as he allowed 8 runs in 1 1/3 before hitting the showers.

Los Angeles Dodgers in general, Vicente Padilla in particular: OK so Padilla as Opening Day starter is a joke, as Clayton Kershaw is clearly the better talent. But to allow seven runs in 4 1/3 innings to the Pirates is, well, sad. The pressure is already building in L.A., as the Dodgers need to take advantage of a favorable early-season schedule.

Marvin Hudson, umpire: Hudson and his cohorts in blue didn’t have as bad a game as Zambrano, but they certainly didn’t help matters much, as Hudson gave Nate McLouth credit for a catch on a fly ball by Marlon Byrd. [Watch here]

The drop was so obvious that Aramis Ramirez didn’t even try to return to first base, and he was promptly doubled up. Luckily the call didn’t figure in the outcome.

As if to take the pressure off Hudson, the umps later blew a similar call in the A’s-Mariners game when Casey Kotchman’s fly bounced into Rajai Davis’ glove for what was ruled an out.

Royals bullpen and defense: We pity you, Zack Greinke. You do your thing, allowing two runs (only one earned, of course) in six innings. You outduel Justin Verlander and depart with a 4-2 lead, then sit and watch your team lose 8-4. Gonna be a long season buddy.

LOST IN THE SHUFFLE: Other performances you may have missed
Placido Polanco:
New Phillies third baseman goes 3-for-5 with a grand slam and 6 RBIs.

Ubaldo Jimenez: Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Johan Santana and Mark Buehrle were all strong, but you might have missed Jimenez, who struck out six and allowed one run in six innings against the Brewers. And he reportedly hit 99 mph on the gun, too.

Yunel Escobar: While Jason Heyward was amazing the masses, Braves shortstop quietly went 2-for-5 with 5 RBIs.

Carlos Gomez: Not a bad Brewers debut for the former Twin/Met, as Gomez goes 4-for-5 with a double and a homer.

Casey Kotchman: Another steal by GM Jack Zduriencik? New Mariners first baseman goes 2-for-4 with 4 RBIs, and was robbed of another hit by the umpires, err, I mean Rajai Davis.

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Bryce Harper is really just a tiny bit better Adam Lind when you think about it

Associated Press
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Tom Boswell of the Washington Post writes about an important matter facing the Washington Nationals over the next year: what to do about Bryce Harper, who is entering his walk year and will be a free agent a little over 12 months from now.

That’s a fine and important question. The Nats do need to decide whether to offer Harper a long term deal, when to offer it and, above all else, how big that deal should be. Should it be $300 million? $400 million? Should it be conventional or unconventional, with opt-outs and such? It’s not every day that a generational talent comes along and it’s even more rare that the generational talent hits free agency at the age of 26, so the decisions facing the Nationals are not easy ones.

Boswell acknowledges that bit of trickiness, but he also, strangely, spends a whole lot of time trying to portray Harper as an ordinary talent. He starts with health, comparing him poorly with Stephen Strasburg, who is ranked 30th in games started over the past five years. In contrast . . .

In those same five years, Harper ranks 90th in games played, just 126 a season, and now he says he should have skipped quite a few more games in 2016 when he had a balky shoulder. That’s almost six weeks out per season.

Nowhere in the column is it mentioned that the several weeks he missed in 2017 was the result of a freak injury in wet conditions and that, despite that, Harper worked his tail off to come back and be ready for the postseason. Not that Boswell doesn’t mention the postseason of course . . .

Harper, for the fourth time, failed to lead his team out of the first round and has career playoff batting average and OPS marks of .215 and .801. By the high standards of right fielders, he’s Mr. Average in October.

I suppose it’s not Boswell’s job to refrain from insulting a player on the team he covers, but he certainly seems hellbent on insulting not only Harper, but our own intelligence via comparisons like this:

In the past five years, in those 126 games, Harper averaged 26 homers, 72 RBI and a .288 average. Over the last nine years, Adam Lind averaged 128 games, 20 homers, 70 RBI and hit .273. That’s selective stat mining. Harper is much better, in part because he walks so much. But Harper and Lind in the same sentence?

“A person can eat delicious chocolate cake or lead paint chips. The chocolate cake is much better, but chocolate cake and lead paint in the same sentence?” I guess Boswell gets points for acknowledging that it was a misleading comparison, but if he thinks it is, why make it in the first place? If you want to eliminate this one as an outlier, cool, because he makes a lot of other comparisons like that in the piece.

This is not necessarily new for Boswell. Here’s something he wrote about Harper in 2014:

Harper has not driven in 60 runs in either of his two seasons. He has only five RBI this year. He’s never had more than 157 runs-plus-RBI. Ryan Zimmerman has had between 163 and 216 six times. Adam LaRoche, no big star, has had 175 or more three times. Fourth outfielder Nate McLouth once had 207. Can we get a grip? Counting their three top starting pitchers, Harper may be the Nats’ seventh-best player. If forced to choose whether Harper or Anthony Rendon would have the better career, I’d think twice. Harper is in a self-conscious, fierce scowl-off with baseball. Rendon dances with it and grins. Baseball loves relaxed.

That was written 16 games into his age-22 season.

I’m not sure what Boswell’s beef with Harper is. I’m not sure why he’s contorting himself to portray him as an ordinary player when he is fairly extraordinary and, most certainly, a special case when it comes to his impending free agency. In his career he already has 26.1 career bWAR, 150 homers, an MVP Award under his belt and, if it wasn’t for that freak injury in August, would have a strong case for a second one. Guy has a career line of .285/.386/.515 and he turned 26 four days ago. He’s younger than Aaron Judge.

My view of things is that players should ignore the media for the most part, but they don’t always do that. Sometimes the hostility or criticism of the local press — especially from the most respected portions of the local press who have the ability to shape fan sentiment — gets to them.

Which is to say that, if this kind of noise keeps up, I wouldn’t be shocked if Harper puts up a line of .340/.480/.650 in 2018 and then walked the hell out of D.C. for New York or Chicago or L.A. or something. Would anyone blame him?