There is something magical about Opening Day, isn’t there?
It’s the start of a new season. Hope is springing eternal. The excitement of what might happen is intoxicating. We are waiting to be wowed, and if we are not laser focused on any one particular team, we are rarely disappointed.
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So, to kick off the 2021 season, let’s look at the 21 most impressive individual performances over the past 100 years of baseball’s Opening Day.
One quick note: This list is about overall performances, not just moments. If it was about moments, where historical importance was the primary factor, the list would start with these three …
1. Jackie Robinson breaking MLB’s color barrier in 1947
2. Hank Aaron tying Babe Ruth with his 714th homer in 1974
3. Babe Ruth opening Yankee Stadium with a homer in 1923
But that’s for another list.
For this one, two homers are better than one, and 13 strikeouts are better than 10. We did give a little added weight for performances that helped a player’s team win a close ballgame, especially when drama was involved in late innings. I mean, we had to have some way to separate the 16 players who have had six RBIs on Opening Day. Speaking of that, apologies to Eric Hosmer for not making this list after his six-RBI day to kick off 2020; his Padres won by five runs.
21. Randy Johnson, Mariners, 1993
Why he’s here: Here’s a shocking/not shocking statistic: Only five times in MLB history has a starting pitcher struck out at least 14 batters on Opening Day, and Randy Johnson has two of those five 14K games. He did it for the first time in 1993, whiffing 14 in eight innings, while allowing seven hits and one run. In ’96, Johnson struck out 14 in seven innings, allowing three hits and two runs.
20. Matt Davidson, White Sox, 2018
Why he’s here: Because of the three home runs he hit against the Royals. Davidson was the fourth player in MLB history to pop three homers on Opening Day. We won’t spoil the list by naming the others here.
19. Carlton Fisk, Red Sox, 1973
Why he’s here: In his first three at-bats after being named the AL Rookie of the Year in 1972, Fisk hit a homer, a double and a homer, in that order. The first round-tripper was a two-run shot, and the second was a grand slam, helping the Red Sox run away from the Yankees in what wound up as a 15-5 win for Boston.
18. Brant Alyea, Twins, 1970
Why he’s here: This, folks, is how you make a good first impression. Alyea was traded from the Senators to the Twins on March 21, 1970. Less than three weeks later, in his first regular-season game with the club, Alyea became the first player in MLB history to record seven RBIs on Opening Day. He had an RBI single in the first, a three-run homer in the fifth and another three-run homer in the seventh.
17. Sam Horn, Orioles, 1990
Why he’s here: Remember how Sam Horn was the great prospect hope all Red Sox fans believed would blast 50 home runs a year into the stands at Fenway? That never materialized, and Boston cut him loose after the 1989 season. His start to the 1990 campaign, with AL East rival Baltimore, had to make Red Sox fans wonder whether their team had made a huge mistake. In that first game as an Oriole, Horn went 4-for-5 with two homers — including a three-run shot in his very first AB — and six RBIs. His second three-run homer of the game, in the eighth inning, tied the contest at 6-6. Baltimore eventually won, 7-6, in 11 innings.
16. Tom Glavine, Braves, 1992
Why he’s here: Glavine won the 1991 Cy Young award for the NL and started the 1992 season like he was determined to win another (spoiler: he finished second to future teammate Greg Maddux). In the ’92 opener, Glavine gave up a single in the first and another in the second and then didn’t allow another hit the rest of the game. Glavine allowed a pair of walks and struck out nine in his 103-pitch effort.
15. Dmitri Young, Tigers, 2005
Why he’s here: Young had five plate appearances on Opening Day and he reached base safely all five times. He hit home runs in the second and third innings, then was hit by a pitch in the fifth. In the seventh, he singled and in the eighth, he popped his third home run of the game. Final numbers in the box score: 4 AB, 4 R, 4 H, 5 RBI. Not too shabby.
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14. Sixto Lezcano, Brewers, 1980
Why he’s here: Lezcano was coming off a great year for the Brewers; he hit .321 with 28 homers, 101 RBI and a 5.6 bWAR, all career-best numbers. And after this Opening Day performance, he was on pace for an even better year. Lezcano tied the game in the fourth with a two-run homer off Dennis Eckersley. Milwaukee built a 5-3 lead heading into the ninth, when the Red Sox tied the game on solo homers by Carl Yastrzemski and Butch Hobson. With two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, Lezcano stepped up and hit a grand slam down the right-field line, the first walk-off grand slam on Opening Day in MLB history.
13. George Bell, Blue Jays, 1988
Why he’s here: Ding, ding, ding! Nobody had ever hit three homers on Opening Day until Bell accomplished the feat, in the first game after he was named the 1987 AL MVP. Even more impressive: All three came off Bret Saberhagen, the K.C. righthander who won the AL Cy Young award in 1985 and would do so again in 1989. The third homer, in the eighth inning, broke a 3-3 tie in a game the Blue Jays wound up winning by a score of 5-3.
12. Don Drysdale, Dodgers, 1960
Why he’s here: Drysdale was just 23 entering the 1960 season, but this was already his third consecutive Opening Day start for the Dodgers. The first two didn’t go so well; he allowed 11 earned runs in 8 2/3 combined innings. In this one, though, he allowed just two runs in 11 innings. The big number, though? He fanned 14 Cubs that day.
11. Minnie Minoso, White Sox, 1960
Why he’s here: Minoso did his part to keep the White Sox from playing any dramatic late innings, plating a run with a sacrifice fly in the second inning and then smashing a grand slam in the fourth. That one put Chicago up, 9-2, but the A’s rallied all the way back, tying the game with two runs in the top of the ninth. Minoso led off the bottom half of that frame and swatted the first pitch he saw over the fence to give the ChiSox a 10-9 win.
10. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers, 2013
Why he’s here: Kershaw pulled off a Maddux and a MadBum in the same game, and he did it on Opening Day! He needed just 94 pitches to shut out the Giants on four hits and seven strikeouts (any sub-100-pitch shutout is “A Maddux”), and he popped a home run (like MadBum) in the eighth inning, for the first run of the ballgame. Bravo.
9. Camilo Pascual, Senators, 1960
Why he’s here: There was just something about the opening of the 1960 season, I guess. We’ve already talked about Drysdale and Minoso, and now this one: Pascual struck out at least one batter every inning. He fanned two hitters in the sixth and eighth innings and three in the second and fourth innings. Every Boston starter struck out at least once, with the exception of Pete Runnels (who led the AL with a .320 average that year) and Ted Williams, who went 1-for-2 with a home run. If Pascual would have struck out Williams even once, he might be No. 1 on this list.
8. Raul Mondesi, Dodgers, 1999
Why he’s here: Mondesi makes the list because of his late-inning heroics, but let’s not overlook an RBI single off Randy Johnson in his first AB of the season. When Mondesi stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, there were two outs and two on, with his Dodgers trailing, 6-3. With the count 3-0, Mondesi swung at a Gregg Olson offering and parked it over the wall down the left field line. Tie game. Extra innings. In the 11th, Mondesi’s turn again came with two outs, and again he delivered, with a two-run homer to give the Dodgers an 8-6 victory. Final count: four hits, two homers, six RBIs.
7. Shane Bieber, Indians, 2020
Why he’s here: After the coronavirus pandemic forced a long delay to the start of the 2020 season, we all needed to watch something amazing happen as soon as baseball started again, and Bieber delivered. He “only” went six innings, throwing 97 pitches, but he struck out 14 of the 23 Kansas City batters he faced that day, July 24.
6. Tuffy Rhodes, Cubs, 1994
Why he’s here: Maybe there’s a bit of personal bias influencing this ranking. I was 18 when this happened and just dumbstruck that a guy named Tuffy Rhodes could hit three home runs on Opening Day against Dwight Gooden. Not that my love for baseball needed any cementing by that point in my life, but the idea that something like that could happen on any random day in this great sport was just something that I loved.
5. Bob Gibson, Cardinals, 1967
Why he’s here: Five batters into his 1967 season, Gibson had five strikeouts. Pretty darn impressive, even more so when you consider that two of those five were Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Willie McCovey (yes, young Giants fans, the guy the cove in San Francisco was named after). Gibson eventually allowed contact and even a few hits, but wound up striking out 13 batters in a five-hit shutout, outpitching fellow Hall of Famer Juan Marichal.
4. Jim Presley, Mariners, 1986
Why he’s here: All of Mondesi’s drama, but with a darn impressive cherry on top. Like Mondesi, Presley tied the game with a ninth-inning home run — a two-run shot — to send the game to extras. And like Mondesi, Presley won the game with a walk-off home run. This one, though? It was a walk-off grand slam, capping a two-homer, six-RBI Opening Day.
3. Gee Walker, Tigers, 1937
Why he’s here: I struggled with where to put this feat. It’s a cycle, so it’s cool, but not necessarily rare (330 in MLB history, though none in the shortened 2020 season). And the cycle mattered — his Tigers beat Cleveland, 4-3. So how about this nugget: It’s one of only 10 reverse natural cycles in MLB history. What’s that? Walker hit a homer his first AB, a triple his second time up, a double his third trip to the plate and closed his day with a single in the seventh inning. And that’s why it’s top five.
2. Walter Johnson, Senators, 1926
Why he’s here: For just a moment, imagine how Baseball Twitter would react to a pitcher throwing 15 innings of shutout baseball on Opening Day. That would be almost as fun to watch as The Big Train dominating opposing hitters. Almost.
1. Bob Feller, Indians, 1940
Why he’s here: I mean, it’s a no-hitter. I’ve looked at a couple of other similar lists and none of them had Feller’s no-hitter at No. 1. It’s a no-hitter, on Opening Day. The April 25, 1940, issue of The Sporting News ran a picture of Feller with his parents and sister, eating dinner in a restaurant after the accomplishment. TSN also ran a story, which included this passage:
“Three times before, the youthful pitching pride of Iowa had come within one hit of this goal, and he finally accomplished the feat with a flourish in an opening game to become the first pitcher since the opening of the present century and only the second in the history of the two major leagues to achieve the distinction. There was an added touch of drama to the performance, as his parents and sister were present to witness the achievement.”
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