Opening Day: Aces in a hole

Watching baseball on the tube Monday, regardless of which game I turned on, not a frame went by without a commentator declaring, “There’s nothing like Opening Day — this is great.” And so it was.

The annual rite of spring is now upon us, and Opening Day was special for many reasons. Watching the Yankees-Orioles game, which was played in Baltimore, provided a truly poignant moment, as former Orioles manager Johnny Oates threw the opening pitch. Oates had surgery during the off-season to remove a brain tumor and has a very long road ahead of him. He received a standing ovation that lasted at least five minutes — to put that in perspective, you could probably read this column two or three times in that span. But, as special as Opening Day was for Oates and fans around the country, for two rival pitching aces, the season openers were most forgettable.

Roger Clemens led the Yankees into battle against the Birds, a squad which on paper has one of the most pitiful offenses in the game. No way the Yankees were going to lose this one.

Three hours earlier, Pedro Martinez took to the mound for the Red Sox at Fenway to face the Blue Jays, another team with seemingly no chance at the start of the year. Pedro Martinez just does not lose home openers against inferior teams. Heck, Pedro Martinez doesn’t lose.

Ah, but you see, there was something mystical in the air this Opening Day. For the Rocket fizzled after a solid start, going four-plus innings and allowing eight runs and Pedro looked extremely vulnerable, also giving up eight runs in four innings of work.

OK, so I know Clemens was cruising until he asininely stuck his bare hand out for a line drive and that many of the hits against Pedro were bloopers. But the bottom line is Clemens and Martinez combined for eight-plus innings of work and 16 runs allowed. Ouch. And this against line-ups comprised mainly of Punchin’ Judy hitters.

Even yesterday, the venerable Kevin Brown lasted only four innings against the San Francisco Giants, who lit him up for seven runs on nine hits. Granted, the Giants have a potent line-up, but doesn’t good pitching stop good hitting? So, three aces pitched a combined 12 innings and allowed a whopping 23 runs. Whoa.

So what’s the point of all this? Well, it’s a general consensus in baseball that pitching wins championships. Predicated on that supposition, most experts picked the Yankees, Diamondbacks, Athletics, and Cardinals to be in the thick of things come October. But what if Clemens’ hand injury (after being shelled, he left the game to have x-rays taken) is of the serious nature? Or something like this happens again to Clemens, who has been injury prone of late, as he enjoys life in his late 30s.

The case of Pedro is more alarming. He is supposedly healthy. But even the Red Sox apologist television announcers were disturbed by Pedro’s demeanor in spring training, where they said he just didn’t seem himself. That’s a subjective evaluation that may mean something and may signify squat. But, while the radar gun readings on Monday may have reached 93 at times, all too often Martinez’s oft-lethal fastball peaked at 89 or 90 mph, very hittable as big league heaters go.

A very, very old baseball clich* says that as goes Opening Day, so goes the season. More often than not this is not the case, but there are rare instances when the season opener foreshadows the next 161 games. Will these two rival aces return to form and carry their teams? Or is the twilight of two incredible careers beginning to set in? Are the cases of Clemens and Martinez going to become an ominous trend for other veteran pitchers? Only time will tell.

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