Early losses don't hinder late gains

Early losses don't hinder late gains

It's just one game.

They are four words that so often reverberate off the walls of losing locker rooms, the let's-not-read-too-much-into-this psyche that seeks to infuse perspective where premature disappointment has been born.

It's just one game.

Year
WS champ
Opening Day result
April record
1979PiratesLost to Expos, 3-27-11
1980PhilliesBeat Expos, 6-36-9
1981DodgersBeat Astros, 2-014-5
1982CardinalsBeat Astros, 14-314-7
1983OriolesBeat Royals, 7-211-9
1984TigersBeat Twins, 8-118-2
1985RoyalsBeat Blue Jays, 2-111-8
1986MetsBeat Pirates, 4-213-3
1987TwinsBeat A's, 5-412-9
1988DodgersLost to Giants, 5-113-7
1989A'sBeat Mariners, 3-218-8
1990RedsBeat Astros, 8-413-3
1991TwinsLost to A's, 7-29-11
1992Blue JaysBeat Tigers, 4-216-7
1993Blue JaysLost to Mariners, 8-113-10
1994No WS
1995BravesBeat Giants, 12-54-1
1996YankeesBeat Indians, 7-113-10
1997MarlinsBeat Cubs, 4-215-10
1998YankeesLost to Angels, 4-117-6
1999YankeesLost to A's, 5-314-7
2000YankeesBeat Angels, 3-215-8
2001DiamondbacksBeat Dodgers, 3-213-12
2002AngelsLost to Indians, 6-011-14
2003MarlinsLost to Phillies, 8-514-15
2004Red SoxLost to Orioles, 7-215-6
2005White SoxBeat Indians, 1-017-7
2006CardinalsBeat Phillies, 13-517-8
2007Red SoxLost to Royals, 7-116-8
2008PhilliesLost to Nationals, 11-615-13

The adage bears immediate weight this season for the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, whose elaborate pregame celebrations Sunday night contrasted starkly with an ugly loss to the Atlanta Braves.

Chalk it up to jitters or the early burden of maintaining ultra-elite status, but the Phillies looked very little the part of reigning champs, mustering up just four total hits and stranding 12 runners on base. For a unit that thrived on offensive firepower a year ago, those totals might spark legitimate concern.

Concern, though, was not the retrospective focus; objectivity was instead the name of the game.

"It's one game," Phillies slugger Ryan Howard said. "Obviously, it's the opener, and a little bit more is made of the opener. But it's one game. We get to come back and play 161 more."

While Howard's response may seem grounded in generic optimism, his logic is backed by evidence that makes a strong case for the relative insignificance of Opening Day outcomes. Recent history indicates that the sting of a Game 1 defeat is at best ephemeral, as a slew of title-holders have gotten off to very iffy beginnings.

Over the past decade, only four World Series champs -- the '00 Yankees, the '01 Diamondbacks, the '05 White Sox and the '06 Cardinals -- have won on Opening Day.

A closer look at the six clubs that lost their openers in that stretch reveals no shortage of storybook glory.

The '04 Red Sox, for example, battled back from a 3-0 deficit to top the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and went on to sweep a red-hot Rockies club; the '03 Marlins rode the arm of a young Josh Beckett to defy tremendous odds; and the '99 Yankees found a cast of unlikely heroes in the form of Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill on their way to victory. Those three clubs lost by a combined score of 20-10 on their respective Opening Days, a margin that seems inconsequential when juxtaposed with the memories generated by each squad's infamous run.

The results dating further back support the notion that Opening Day performance is not indicative of a successful campaign. Since 1988, the split is exactly even, as World Series champions have gone 10-10 in their openers (the 1994 strike-shortened season notwithstanding).

For quite a few of those clubs, Opening Day wasn't the only apparent early-season smudge on an eventually impressive record. The '99 Yankees lost their first three games and four of their first five; the '93 Blue Jays went 7-7 to start the season; and, perhaps most startlingly, the '91 Twins won just two of their first 11 contests. Those squads pushed through their initial struggles to capture supremacy, as did some of the more well-remembered Opening Day losers from the previous decade like Kirk Gibson's '88 Dodgers and Willie Stargell's '79 Pirates.

While a few bad games don't seem to hinder a team's shot at glory, one would think that a poor first month is sufficiently damaging to squash a club's title hopes. Contrarily, the data indicates it is quite possible to begin a championship run in May. Of the 30 World Series winners since 1979, five have compiled a losing record in their season's first month, and five more have compiled a record of just three games above .500 or worse. A bit of perspective for the nonbeliever: One-third of baseball's last 30 champions have been definitively average at the end of April.

So what does it all mean? At worst, it means a bit of faith is required as clubs seek to work out their kinks in the coming weeks. At best, it means every squad has a true shot at history.

Perhaps Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino put it best -- or at least most simply:

"It's Game 1," said Victorino. "Geez, we've got 161 left."

That they do.

Corey Gottlieb is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.