“That was cool, man.”
Yes, it was, Giancarlo Stanton. Yes, it was.
It’s the first 2018 regular-season edition of Real or Not, and Mr. Stanton immediately lived up to the hype. In his first game that mattered with the New York Yankees, Stanton hit two home runs, including an opposite-field blast in his first at-bat to lead the Yankees to a 6-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. You know it felt good, especially since it meant he wouldn’t have to deal with the New York media asking, “Are you feeling the pressure?” after the game like he would have if he’d gone 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.
“You gotta get that first one out of the way and you can stop worrying about it,” Stanton said. “It was a great day. We got 10-plus hits; we put it on ’em. I think they only got two hits. So it was a good day overall.”
Sounds like somebody very happy to be on a new team and away from his old one.
Here’s my takeaway from this game. Aaron Boone spent much of spring tinkering with his lineup, speculating about potential batting orders, suggesting he might hit Aaron Judge leadoff, and then having a wrench thrown into whatever plans he may have had when Greg Bird landed on the disabled list after foot surgery. He ended up hitting Judge, Stanton and Gary Sanchez in the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 slots against Blue Jays lefty J.A. Happ. I’d keep it just like that. Righty, lefty, doesn’t matter. Don’t overthink it, don’t worry about separating the right-handed batters with a lefty, don’t worry about potential bullpen matchups that may arise later in the game.
Just put the big boys right where they were in the opener: 2-3-4. Make pitchers sweat the night before about facing those three in a row. Make it difficult to work out of potential jams. It’s a lethal trio to get through. If Brett Gardner is the primary leadoff hitter, he’s a solid on-base guy. Judge is going to hit home runs and draw a lot of walks even when he isn’t hitting home runs. That’s going to create a lot of RBI opportunities for Stanton. With Sanchez backing him up, you can’t really pitch around Stanton when there’s a base open.
What the entire lineup is going to do is make pitchers work. Gardner is always among the league leaders in pitches per plate appearance. Judge is patient and works the count. Stanton is a little more aggressive, but he takes his walks as well. Happ actually pitched pretty well, but in 4⅔ innings he threw 96 pitches, even though he issued just one walk and four hits. (Gardner, Judge and Stanton saw a combined 75 pitches in their 14 plate appearances.) The Yankees are going to knock out a lot of starters early just by running up those pitch counts. Managers may not mind going to their bullpens, but that could lead to some taxed relievers by the end of a series.
It’s one game. Stanton reminded everyone about that. He said the two home runs rank high on his personal list: “They’re up there. As long as we get a little start here, keep it rolling in the series. Got 161 to go.”
Here’s the rest of what happened on an exciting Opening Day:
What happened: The Cubs hit three home runs -- including Ian Happ’s homer on the first pitch of the major league season -- and the bullpen threw 4⅔ scoreless innings in an 8-4 victory.
Real or not: Yes, Virginia, the Cubs are better than the Marlins. In fact, somebody on our baseball staff asked this question: How many players on the Marlins’ Opening Day roster would make the Cubs’ roster? J.T. Realmuto would make it -- although only as the backup to Willson Contreras -- but he’s on the DL. Kyle Barraclough and Drew Steckenrider are pretty good relievers; maybe they beat out Justin Wilson or Pedro Strop or Brian Duensing. Starlin Castro maybe edges out Ben Zobrist or Tommy La Stella as a backup infielder, although La Stella was excellent off the bench last year. Justin Bour would be a nice pinch hitter, but the Cubs already have a better first baseman and manager Joe Maddon demands defensive versatility. So, what, maybe three guys? Four if you include Realmuto?
Real or not: Martinez battled the strike zone all day, walking six batters, but the concern here is the Cardinals’ bullpen, which struggled in the clutch last season (18th in win probability added) and started the season with projected closer Luke Gregerson on the DL. Before the game, reports broke that the team had agreed to a deal with free-agent closer Greg Holland on a one-year contract. Holland saved 41 games with the Rockies in his return from Tommy John surgery, but he also was handled with kid gloves and threw just 57 innings, so he’s not a guy you count on for four- or five-out saves. There are some quality arms here, including rookie Jordan Hicks and his 100-mph heater, but manager Mike Matheny’s ability to get the best out of them remains a question. Maybe new pitching coach Mike Maddux will help.
What happened: George Springer led off with a home run and Justin Verlander cruised through six scoreless innings in a 4-1 win to push his regular-season record with the Astros to 6-0 in six starts with a 0.90 ERA.
Real or not: The way Verlander pitched after a midseason mechanical change suggests he should be right in the thick of the Cy Young race, but how about Springer as a sleeper MVP candidate? He may rank behind two of his own teammates in that area, but he’s coming off a 5.0 WAR season and is still improving. His big improvement last year was cutting his strikeout rate from 23.9 percent to 17.7 percent. The reason I like him as a potential MVP is that he hit .310/.380/.613 with 27 home runs in the first half before sliding to .241/.347/.377 in the second half. That coincided with a quad injury that landed him on the DL in late July. If he can stay healthy and focused for six months, you could be looking at some insane numbers from the leadoff spot.
Side note: The Astros employed a four-man outfield against Joey Gallo. That could be the hot new trend this season. Stay tuned.
Verlander on the four-man OF alignmen pic.twitter.com/kvYMd8czdu— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) March 29, 2018
What happened: Chris Sale left with a 4-0 lead after allowing one hit in six innings, but the Rays improbably scored six runs in the eighth to ruin Alex Cora’s managerial debut. The Rays had lost 70 games in a row they trailed by four-plus runs, most in the majors, and were the only team not to win a game last season after trailing by at least four runs.
Real or not: So Stanton homers twice and the Boston bullpen blows a comfortable lead in disastrous fashion. I’m sure that will go over well on sports radio in Boston on Friday morning. Those guys are always very calm and not reactionary at all. Joe Kelly walked three batters and Carson Smith walked one before Denard Span cleared the bases with a triple down the right-field line. Cora explained after the game that he didn’t want to use Craig Kimbrel before the ninth inning on Opening Day. “We talked about it before the game,” he said. “I’m not going to put him in that spot right now.” I’ll buy that. Kelly and Smith are good relievers who had bad days. The Boston pen led the majors in WPA last season while ranking second in ERA. Sure, a chunk of that was Kimbrel’s dominance, but this should be a very good pen.
What happened: The Twins tied it with two runs in the ninth and escaped a bases-loaded jam in the 10th thanks to a five-man infield, but Adam Jones sent Orioles fans home happy with a walk-off blast off Fernando Rodney in the 11th.
Real or not: This was a fun game, as Dylan Bundy and Jake Odorizzi locked up in a scoreless duel before the bullpens took over. Brad Brach blew the save for Baltimore, but the issue here is Minnesota’s bullpen. The Twins invested heavily to upgrade their relief group, signing Rodney, Addison Reed and Zach Duke as free agents. Is Rodney going to be the answer at closer? He’s 41, and although was very good for Arizona last season after a bad April, he still walked 4.2 per nine, so it’s always a tightrope with him. I’d say there's a 50 percent chance he lasts the season as closer.
What happened: Corey Knebel blew the save, but the Brewers pushed across the winning run in the 12th for a 2-1 victory.
Real or not: If you’re sensing a trend about bullpens on this Opening Day, you’re right. There was a lot of shoddy relief work. Knebel had a monster season in 2017, making the All-Star team while striking out 126 batters in 76 innings. He was worked hard, appearing in 76 games and tiring in September, but he should be fine. I want to point out something else that allowed the Brewers to win this game: They actually carried 14 position players on the Opening Day roster -- including three first basemen on the bench as Ryan Braun started at first. A lot of teams are carrying just 12 position players. Well, in the 12th inning, manager Craig Counsell still had Ji-Man Choi on his bench to hit for the pitcher. He doubled with two outs and scored the winning run on Orlando Arcia’s single. Choi probably will be replaced on the roster as soon as they need another pitcher, but he helped the Brewers to one big win.
What happened: Matt Davidson became the fourth player to hit three home runs on Opening Day to power the White Sox to a 14-7 victory.
Real or not: Davidson matched a record set by Dmitri Young (2005 Tigers), Tuffy Rhodes (1994 Cubs) and George Bell (1988 Blue Jays), and the White Sox tied the Opening Day record with six home runs as a team. So, is Davidson for real? The 27-year-old has power, slugging 27 home runs in 118 games last season, but he also posted a horrific .260 OBP as he hit .220 and had a 165/19 K/BB ratio. He was a little better in spring training, with nine walks and 19 strikeouts, and drew a walk in this game. If he doesn’t improve the walk rate and cut down the strikeouts, the raw power won’t be enough to keep him in the majors.
What happened: Shohei Ohtani went 1-for-5 in his major league debut, but the Oakland bullpen threw six scoreless innings as the A’s won 6-5 in 11 innings.
Real or not: Hey, Ohtani has more hits than Mike Trout, who went 0-for-6 for the first time in his career and struck out in the 11th with two runners on. Credit to the Oakland bullpen and Boog Powell’s triple off Justin Upton’s glove (he should have caught it) that led to the winning run, but let’s focus on Ohtani. One thing he did in this game was drop the high leg kick he had in spring training, when he went 4-for-32. That could be a temporary thing until he gets his timing down, as the leg kick is used to help deliver more power. He singled in his first at-bat, a hard bouncer past the first baseman, grounded out to second his next three times and then struck out against Chris Hatcher. The A’s even showed him some respect by shifting on him. He had one decent at-bat against lefty Ryan Buchter, fouling off a couple tough pitches before hitting a hard grounder. You can’t read anything into one game, but he certainly seemed focused on getting the ball in play. Like any young hitter, he just needs at-bats.
Side note: Ohtani will make history of sorts when he starts on Sunday. The last player to start a game on the mound and in the field or at DH in the same season was Rick Rhoden with the Yankees in 1988. Rhoden was a good-hitting pitcher whom manager Billy Martin started one game at DH, saying injuries had left him with no other choice. Before that, Willie Smith started one game at pitcher for the Angels in 1964 (and pitched 14 times in relief) and started 80 games in the outfield. In his case, all his pitching outings came through June 15, at which time he was moved to the outfield. Remarkably, he hit cleanup in his first start in right field and ended the season hitting .301 with a 2.84 ERA in 31⅔ innings.
Real or not: Phillies fans were apoplectic about new manager Gabe Kapler pulling Aaron Nola with one out in the sixth inning after just 68 pitches. It did seem like a quick hook, but the bullpen has to hold a 5-0 lead. Instead, Freddie Freeman greeted Hoby Milner with a two-run homer and four of the five relievers Kapler used gave up runs, including three home runs. Ouch. The story, however, was the Atlanta offense: Is it good? I’m not sure about that. Markakis didn’t homer all spring and hit just eight in 160 games last year. The combination of Ender Inciarte, Ozzie Albies and Freeman is a nice top of the lineup, but it’s pretty thin after that, at least until Ronald Acuna gets called up. They need their catchers to produce again and Dansby Swanson to make big strides.
Real or not: Are the Giants for real? A good bullpen will help given the issues there in 2017. Closer Mark Melancon is on the DL, but Hunter Strickland may be the better option at this point anyway. This much is certain: With Madison Bumgarner likely out until early May and Jeff Samardzija sidelined for three weeks or so, it’s critical for the Giants not to fall way behind before May even kicks in. They play the Dodgers 10 times by the end of April and the Diamondbacks six times, with three-game series against the Angels and Nationals. So beating Kershaw like this is a nice start.
What happened: Corey Kluber made one mistake in an otherwise sterling effort, but it cost him the game as Nelson Cruz hit a first-pitch cutter for a two-run homer in the first. The Mariners won 2-1 in Ichiro’s return to Seattle (he started in left field and got a huge ovation).
Real or not: Meanwhile, Felix Hernandez tossed 5⅓ scoreless innings, allowing two hits with two walks and four strikeouts. He’s mostly a sinker/curveball/changeup guy now, as he threw just 13 fastballs, but he kept the Indians off-balance. What can he be? Probably a No. 3-type starter at best. Most importantly, they need him to make 30 starts after he made just 16 last season.
What happened: Jake Lamb doubled in two runs in a three-run first and then singled in two more runs in the sixth as the Diamondbacks beat the Rockies.
Real or not: Lamb was a 2017 All-Star, so he’s for real in a certain sense, but there are some lingering issues about how real he actually is. The 30 homers and 105 RBIs were nice, but for the second straight season he faded badly in the second half (.922 OPS to .735) and he hit just .144 against lefties. The whole package added up to just 1.5 WAR (his defensive metrics were poor). His two-run single came off lefty Chris Rusin, although it was a little flare to left field. Arizona’s backup infielders are lefty-hitting Daniel Descalso and light-hitting Deven Marrero. If Lamb doesn’t hit lefties better this year, Marrero could take some playing time from him.