Two of NL's elite deliver fitting start to season despite low temps
By Mike Bauman
PITTSBURGH -- Temperature aside, this was an ideal way to open the season for Major League Baseball.
Fittingly, the teams with baseball's two best regular-season records in 2015 played the first game of the 2016 season on Sunday. And these two teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates, opened the season at PNC Park, a baseball venue second to none.
"I think it's kind of cool that we get to play the first game of the 2016 season," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We've provided some tangible evidence to our fan base and Major League Baseball that we're an organization on the rise. We intend to stay there and move to even greater heights."
It was kind of cool, literally and figuratively. OK, the game-time temperature was 39 degrees. This sort of thing can happen at this latitude in early April. The Allegheny River was still flowing past the ballpark, but not gently. Small-craft advisories were unnecessary, because nothing smaller than a barge doing business was going to be on the river. So the search for absolute perfection goes on.
The sellout crowd of 39,500, people who put on their cold-weather gear, and joked about this being "Steelers weather," were rewarded for their fortitude. The Pirates played a fine game in all facets, defeating the Cardinals, 4-1.
The Cardinals, of course, didn't go quietly, bringing the tying run to the plate in the ninth. But the day belonged to the Pirates, who received a major push from the work of starting pitcher Francisco Liriano. He struck out 10 over six shutout innings, tying a franchise record. Conveniently, Liriano was one of the pitchers who previously held the record.
So, who cared that the climate was short a few degrees? This was good, solid Opening Day stuff for the home team; quality play and a victory over the team it has come in second to in three straight seasons.
"Opening Day is wonderful," Hurdle said Sunday morning, even before the Bucs won their opener. "I shared a quote that I picked up from Joe DiMaggio: 'It's kind of like a birthday when you're a kid. You're just looking forward to getting something good.' And it has a lot of meaning along those lines. So many people gravitate to it.
"Opening Day, from my standpoint, it's fresh, it's real, it's a great opportunity, it's another sign of spring, winter's over, we're moving into spring and summer. So I love it and then I'll be the first one to tell you that I'll be the happiest guy in camp when it's over, because then we get to go back to taking on things at a little bit more of a normal pace."
Hurdle was smiling when he said that last thing.
St. Louis-Pittsburgh has become a real rivalry, not in the sense of animosity boiling over, but because of high, yet reasonable aspirations. Over the last three seasons, the Pirates have won 280 games, a total exceeded by only one Major League team -- the Cardinals, of course, with 287. Over the last three seasons, when these two teams played head-to-head, the difference was one game per season. From 2013-15, the Cardinals had a 30-27 edge over the Pirates. Make that 30-28 after Sunday.
The level of this competition struck Cardinals manager Mike Matheny more directly than the fact that this was a pairing of the two best 2015 records.
"Every time we play them it's just knockdown, drag-out," Matheny said. "Every game we have with these guys, every series, is just like that. And I don't see that changing any time soon."
No, it probably isn't going to change at all. The Cardinals are one mountain the Pirates need to climb -- Mt. NL Central. The Bucs were an exceptionally good team last year, but what was their reward for a 98-victory season? They got to face North America's hottest pitcher, Jake Arrieta, in the NL Wild Card Game.
So the Pirates aim even higher.
"Our goal is to win the division, that's not going to change," Hurdle said. "Our goal is to win the World Series, that's not going to change. So it's a fresh opportunity to do that. It could be a great moment and 'great moments are [born] from great opportunities.' I think Herb Brooks said that."
Herb Brooks did say that. Brooks was most notably the coach of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, the fabled "Miracle on Ice" gold-medal winners.
This was a fine opener for baseball, and an even better opener for the Pirates. The grand old game was once again in the hearts of the faithful. And after three hours, two minutes, the PNC Park crowd was still at capacity.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.