Grand openings a legendary part of the game

Grand openings a legendary part of the game

Grand openings a legendary part of the game
Memories and history have been made on every Opening Day since the first, and players ranging from those who might only spend a handful of time in the Majors to surefire Hall of Famers all have been part of it.

Opening Day has produced moments that transcend baseball, such as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947. It also has shown how the game is woven into the country's fabric, with President William Howard Taft throwing a ball to Washington's Walter Johnson in 1910, beginning the presidential tradition of the first pitch.

Performances by the players themselves have been remembered as well: Hank Aaron tying Babe Ruth's all-time home run record with No. 714 in 1974, and Ruth himself homering in the first game at Yankee Stadium in 1923.

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And, of course, the granddaddy of them all: 22-year-old future Hall of Famer Bob Feller tossing a no-hitter against the White Sox to open the 1940 season.

As Hall of Famer Early Wynn famously said: "An opener is not like any other game. There's that little extra excitement, a faster beating of the heart. You have that anxiety to get off to a good start, for yourself and for the team. You know that when you win the first one, you can't lose 'em all."

That added excitement has produced many memorable performances that remain vivid in the minds of fans.

Although no recent Opening Day performances rival those of Ruth, Aaron and Feller, there have been numerous standouts since the turn of the century. With the Cardinals' 4-1 victory in Miami in the books and an afternoon and evening filled with games on deck, here's a look back at some of the top Opening Day performances since 2000.

Power surge
At least one player has hit two Opening Day homers every season since 2000 -- the most recent being Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia a year ago. In all, the feat has been accomplished by 26 players. The names on that list range from the usual suspects -- Jason Giambi (2000), Barry Bonds (2002) and Jeff Bagwell (2003) -- to the surprising -- Shannon Stewart (2000), Edgar Renteria (2007) and Felipe Lopez (2009).

Albert Pujols (2006, 2010), Xavier Nady (2005, 2008) and Adam Dunn (2005, 2007) separate themselves from the rest as the only players to do it twice, but when it comes to Opening Day power, Dmitri Young stands alone.

Young, then the Tigers' designated hitter, put on a performance for the ages on April 4, 2005, hitting three Opening Day home runs, joining Toronto's George Bell (1988) and the Cubs' Tuffy Rhodes (1994) as the only players to do so. Young launched a solo shot in the second inning, a two-run homer in the third and another two-run bomb in the eighth. And for good measure, his other two plate appearances resulted in a single and a hit-by-pitch.

"I was just unconscious," Young said afterward. "It was an unconscious day, because I still don't believe it just yet."

Hit machines
Ichiro's four-hit night in Japan in last week's opener made him the 23rd player to knock out four hits in an opener since 2000, as he joined a group that includes Josh Bard (2007), Jose Cruz (2006), Ben Broussard (2004) and Dean Palmer (2000).

Then-Cardinals second baseman Aaron Miles had four hits on Opening Day 2006, although that performance was a bit of a letdown from the previous Opening Day, when he went 5-for-6 for the Rockies.

Five of Craig Biggio's 3,060 career hits came on Opening Day 2001, when the Astros second baseman went 5-for-5.

Kings of the hill
Although hitters have put up impressive numbers on Opening Day, the general consensus is that pitchers are more advanced than hitters early on. There have been plenty of performances to back that claim.

Hideo Nomo (2003), Randy Johnson (2002) and Bartolo Colon (2002) all were in midseason form when they opened their seasons with complete-game shutouts.

Traditional power pitchers such as Josh Beckett (10 strikeouts against the Rays in 2009), Pedro Martinez (12 strikeouts in only six innings against the Reds in 2005 and 11 against the Mariners in 2000), Felix Hernandez (12 against the A's in 2007) and the Big Unit (10 against the Dodgers in 2001 and Phillies in 2000) have stymied hitters. But others -- Esteban Loaiza (nine strikeouts against the Rangers in 2001) and Jason Schmidt (nine against the Dodgers in 2005) -- also have left their mark on Opening Day history.

There also have been great pitchers' duels over the past 12 years. On April 4, 2005, left-hander Mark Buehrle, then with the White Sox, allowed only two hits in eight shutout innings to best Indians right-hander Jake Westbrook, who allowed only four hits in eight innings of one-run ball.

Baltimore's Pat Hentgen (one run in 8 2/3 innings) matched Martinez (one run in seven innings) on Opening Day 2001 -- although neither factored in the decision. The next day, a three-run complete game by Detroit's Jeff Weaver was no match for Minnesota's Brad Radke, who held the Tigers to one run in eight innings.

Welcome to the Show
Opening Day often provides the first real chance to see new players perform on the big stage. Over the past 12 years, there have been a handful of memorable debuts.

Braves outfielder Jason Heyward began his Major League career in 2010 as one of the most celebrated young prospects in recent memory. He didn't disappoint on Opening Day, launching a three-run homer in his first at-bat to send the Turner Field crowd into a frenzy.

"I felt my legs, but I couldn't hear myself think," Heyward, who finished 2-for-5 with four RBIs, said afterward. "It was so loud. You just hear 'rahhhh,' and that was cool."

Two Japanese players also quickly proved they belonged in the Majors. On March 31, 2008, Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome went 3-for-3 with three RBIs and also hit a game-tying three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.

Fukudome's stellar debut evoked memories of Kazuo Matsui's first Major League game four years earlier, when the then-Mets shortstop homered in his first at-bat. Matsui finished 3-for-3 with two doubles, three RBIs and two walks.

"For him to get off to that kind of start is a fairy tale," Mets manager Art Howe said afterward.

Ending with a bang
Opening Day in and of itself is exciting, but there's no better way to inject more energy into a stadium than a walk-off home run. Opening Day certainly has seen its share of the dramatic throughout the past 12 years. Just last season, in fact, Cincinnati's Ramon Hernandez hit a walk-off three-run homer against the Brewers.

Two of the more memorable walk-offs have capped impressive comebacks.

In 2004 the Royals entered the bottom of the ninth down, 7-3, to the White Sox. Benito Santiago followed two consecutive walks with an RBI double and, one batter later, Mendy Lopez hit a three-run homer to tie the score. Angel Berroa then singled to left, and Carlos Beltran sent a two-run homer into the seats to give the Royals a thrilling victory.

After scoring only one run through the first eight innings of the 2003 opener, Tampa Bay came to bat in the bottom of the ninth trailing Boston, 4-1. Travis Lee singled and Terry Shumpert followed with a homer to bring Tampa Bay within one. Ben Grieve followed with a single and, after two quick outs, Marlon Anderson drew a walk before Carl Crawford hit a 1-2 pitch over the fence for a walk-off three-run shot.

"It was easily one of the most exciting evening in franchise history," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said afterward. "It goes right up there with the first Opening Day [on March 31, 1998], and the electricity that was in the air that day."

Cash Kruth is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @cashkruth. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.