Buehrle named Opening Day starter

Guillen tabs Buehrle as Opening Day starter

TUCSON, Ariz. -- During an offseason conversation with pitching coach Don Cooper, Mark Buehrle was told of a tentative plan that would place him as the Opening Day starter against Cleveland at U.S. Cellular Field on the night of April 2.

That plan became official on Saturday afternoon, during manager Ozzie Guillen's first meeting with pitchers and catchers.

"They didn't sit me down personally," said Buehrle of how he was told of this particular Opening Day honor. "They just said it to the team out there. They told me to be ready for Opening Day and don't [be tight]."

Giving the nod to Buehrle to start the season opener should be of no surprise to anyone who follows the White Sox. It should be less of a surprise to Buehrle, who will be pitching in his fifth straight season opener and his second straight at home.

The crafty 26-year-old is dominant at U.S. Cellular Field, in a ballpark that doesn't necessarily favor the men on the mound. He finished 10-2 with a 2.48 ERA at home during the 2005 regular season and has a career 46-24 mark at U.S. Cellular with a 3.57 ERA.

Buehrle also posted a 2-0 record with a 2.45 ERA against Cleveland in 2005, evening his career ledger at 7-7 when facing the Indians. Those numbers are impressive, but the real reason for Buehrle pitching to an opening night full house is that he simply deserves the recognition.

In five years as a full-time member of the starting rotation, Buehrle has never started less than 32 games. He has topped 221 innings in all five seasons, including his 482 innings combined over the last two seasons, leading the American League. He also has won at least 14 games every year.

And if the explanation moves a little off the statistical format and goes along the good Karmic path, it was Buehrle who threw out the first pitch against Cleveland to begin the memorable 2005 campaign. He allowed two hits over eight innings in a 1-0 victory, which was a definite sign of positive things to come.

Starting his fifth straight season opener, dating back to 2002, ties Buehrle with Wilbur Wood for the longest run by a White Sox left-hander since Wood made five starts in a row from 1972-76. While Buehrle clearly takes pride in the streak, he believes the distinction could have been bestowed on any of the four remaining starters in the rotation.

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"Everyone on this team has or deserves to start on Opening Day," Buehrle said. "[Jon] Garland and [Jose] Contreras, with the years they had last year, they could definitely be out there.

"[Javier] Vazquez was an Opening Day guy for Arizona. One through five, everyone could start on Opening Day or be a one or two guy on every other team."

It was Contreras who earned the first start in each of the 2005 playoff series against Boston, the Angels and Houston. It also was Contreras who not only was the White Sox ace during the second half of last season but also one of the best pitchers in all of baseball.

Yet, there's no guarantee Contreras will start the second game of 2006 on Tuesday, April 4, a contest that will feature a pregame presentation of the White Sox World Series rings. In fact, Guillen would not commit to any of the rotation past Buehrle.

Garland and Freddy Garcia, with their past strong efforts during day games, would make sense for the next two afternoon contests against Cleveland. Then again, Garcia is a stronger pitcher on the road than he is at U.S. Cellular.

Five weeks remain before Guillen and Cooper have to make any further decision.

"I'm not doing this by myself. I've got a lot of people to help me, and we're going to send the best rotation we have for the season," Guillen said. "Right now, I said Buehrle because he's the guy that should be there, but behind Buehrle, anyone can be there.

"Buehrle is consistent. What he did over the years, he earned to be in that spot," Guillen added.

Prior to the start of the 2004 campaign, Guillen's first year as the White Sox manager, he was leaning toward Esteban Loaiza as the Opening Day starter in Kansas City. Loaiza, after all, was coming off of a 21-win season and a second-place finish in the American League Cy Young balloting in 2003.

But Loaiza deferred to Buehrle, who had given up his last start in 2003 to Loaiza in Kansas City so Loaiza could match the single-season win record for Mexican-born pitchers. This example of team-first behavior is how Guillen began to build the 2005 championship squad.

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have pitchers of Buehrle's caliber. Working the opener might be second nature to Buehrle, at this point. His first start of 2006, in front of a raucous and appreciative crowd, certainly will be one to remember.

That effort also might leave ESPN with a little programming time to fill. Buehrle's starts averaged 2 hours, 40 minutes per game last season.

"It's obviously an honor," said Buehrle, who almost lost last year's home opener to a foot injury suffered late in Spring Training. "Once I get out there, the atmosphere will be a lot crazier. The fans will be into it. But it's nice to start Opening Day, get my ring on the second game and just sit back and enjoy it."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.