Nightengale's Notebook: Handing out MLB's opening weekend awards

HOUSTON — The World Series championship trophy and ring ceremonies are over in Houston.

The pageantry, parades and sellout crowds in downtown Cincinnati have been replaced by the gloomy forecast of a 100-loss season.

The Budweiser Clydesdales have gone back to their stables in St. Louis with hopes of prancing back onto the field at Busch Stadium in October.

The glorious season-openers  have come to an end, leaving New York Mets fans to anxiously worry about Cy Young winner Justin Verlander’s health, Texas Rangers fans to hope that Jacob deGrom’s opening-day dud isn’t a sign of things to come and San Diego Padres fans to pray they aren’t a reincarnation of the Worst Team Money Can Buy after an 0-2 start.

Well, just a few days into the season, and ears still ringing from the raucous crowd in Houston watching their beloved Astros celebrate their 2022 World Series one last time, let’s usher in our awards from baseball’s opening weekend:

Anthony Volpe and Aaron Judge celebrate their opening day win.
Anthony Volpe and Aaron Judge celebrate their opening day win.

Best moment: New York Yankees captain Aaron Judge, becoming the first player to homer after hitting an American League record 62 of them last season, against the team, the San Francisco Giants, that so badly vigorously recruited him.

“I don't know who at MLB did that to me," Judge joked before the game, “but it's going to be a fun afternoon, that's for sure, getting a chance to play the team I watched a lot as a kid."

Worst moment: Cy Young winner Justin Verlander hitting the injured list on opening day before throwing a single pitch on his two-year, $86.6 million contract with the Mets.

“It’s not the way I wanted my Mets tenure to start,’’ Verlander said, “that’s for sure. I put in a ton of work to not have things like this happen.’’

Biggest surprise: Beloved St. Louis Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright stepping away from his teammates during opening-day introductions, stepping up to the mic, and singing the National anthem.

“Probably seven times more nervous today,’’ Wainwright said, “than any start I’ve ever had in my life.’’

Most disappointing start: San Diego Padres. When you have the third-largest payroll in baseball ($247.889 million), the biggest stars and publicly declare it’s World Series or bust, then yes, losing the first two games at home against the Colorado Rockies qualifies as an opening-weekend nightmare. They managed just three runs, 11 hits and went 0-for-15 with runners in scoring position in their first two games.

Most surprising start: Colorado Rockies. It may be opening weekend, but come on, did anyone ever expect the Rockies to be in first place in the NL West at all this year?

Greatest opening performance: Baltimore Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman, playing in his first season-opener, went 5-for-5 with a homer and four RBI. The only two previous players to accomplish that feat? A couple of Hall of Famers named Babe Ruth and Billy Herman.

Greatest opening line: Chicago White Sox GM Rick Hahn on seeing first baseman Jose Abreu in a Houston Astros uniform after playing the last nine years in Chicago: “It’s like “It’s like seeing Jordan in a Wizards uniform.”

Worst opening act: Los Angeles Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon tugging on the shirt of a fan, swearing at him and taking a slap (that fortunately missed) at him.

Rendon is being investigated by Major League Baseball for his action, and considering that Kansas City Royals reliever Amir Garrett was suspended last year for throwing water at a Chicago White Sox fan, you can expect a similar disciplinary action.

Rangers right fielder Robbie Grossman and catcher Jonah Heim celebrates after Grossman's opening day home run against the Phillies
Rangers right fielder Robbie Grossman and catcher Jonah Heim celebrates after Grossman's opening day home run against the Phillies

Best offensive performance: The Texas Rangers. They prided themselves on their pitching acquisitions this winter highlighted by Jacob deGrom, but it’s their offense that has exploded. They scored 27 runs in their first two games against the Philadelphia Phillies, batting .375 with three doubles and five home runs. Only the 1951 Chicago White Sox (30 runs) scored more in the first two games.

Worst offensive performance: The Kansas City Royals opened the season suffering back-to-back shutouts, producing just six hits. It was the first time in the Minnesota Twins/Washington Senators history that they opened the season with back-to-back shutouts.

Worst debut: Oakland A’s starter Shintaro Fujinami. The 28-year-old Japanese pitcher retired the first six Los Angeles Angels’ batters he faced, striking out four, and then completely melted down. He retired just one more batter, giving up five hits, eight runs and three walks in the Angels’ 11-run, third inning. His ERA: 30.86.

Worst first impression: Texas Rangers ace Jacob deGrom. DeGrom, who was given a five-year, $185 million contract this this winter, went out and was shelled in his debut. He gave up a career-high six extra-base hits and five earned runs without making it out of the fourth inning, leaving with a 12.27 ERA.

Strangest pitching line: Jack Flaherty, St. Louis Cardinals.

5 innings, 0 hits, 0 runs, 7 walks, 1 hit batter, 4 strikeouts, 95 pitches.

He was the 16th pitcher in history to walk at least seven batters in a hitless, scoreless outing of any length.

Best proof that spring training starts are meaningless: Chicago Cubs shortstop Dansby Swanson. Swanson, who was hitting .075 entering the final weekend of spring training, freaking out Cubs’ fans, produced more hits the first two days of the season (6-for-8, .750) than he did all spring.

Classiest gesture (team): Houston Astros owner Jim Crane. Crane not only purchased more than 2,000 World Series rings to every single Astros’ employee, including ushers and stadium workers, but covered the taxes of the rings, as well.

“I just don’t think it’s fair to give out rings and then have them worry about the taxes on it,’’ Crane said. “It’s only right.’’

Classiest gesture (player): Yankees rookie Anthony Volpe telephoned former Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner before opening day and asked if he could wear his old jersey, No. 11.

“It just shows maturity,” Aaron Judge said. “He's a guy that’s got a great support system, a great family. Even talking with his teammates in the minor leagues, man, they just speak so highly of him. The way they look at him, the way they watch him during the game. It was something special [to hear], but it shows you that he's not a normal 21-year-old. This kid's got something special."

Biggest contract extension: San Diego Padres infielder Jake Cronenworth. He signed a seven-year, $80 million contract extension beginning in 2024, making him the fourth Padres’ player to be tied up until at least 2030.

Biggest contract dispute: Bryan Reynolds, Pittsburgh Pirates. Reynolds asked for a trade when the two sides couldn’t reach a contract extension this winter, seeking an eight-year, $134 million deal while the Pirates offered a six-year, $80 million contract. They finally bridged the gap with an eight-year, $106.75 million deal, only for one hang-up. The Pirates are refusing to include an opt-out clause, after watching the likes of Manny Machado and Xander Bogaerts use that for leverage to earn a combined $370 million more than their original deals.

The stalemate continues.

Cy Yuk award: Boston Red Sox starters Chris Sale and Corey Kluber. The duo have had 10 seasons in which they finished in the top 5 in Cy Young balloting, including two Cy Young awards by Kluber.

They opened the season with a combined 17.05 ERA. giving up 23 hits, 12 earned runs and five homers in 6 ⅓ innings, spanning 154 pitches.

Biggest allegiance switch(?): Mark Wahlberg. Wahlberg, born and raised in Boston, and a diehard Red Sox fan, now has become an Astros fan. He has taken great delight watching the Astros end the Yankees’ World Series hopes in three postseasons and has become close friends with Astros All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman.

“He’s an amazing guy and he’s also my favorite Yankee-killer of all time,” Wahlberg said. “I’ve been a big, big fan of his for awhile  ... I was rooting for him all the way through when my Red Sox were out."

Bud Black's big weekend

Bud Black is in his seventh season as Rockies manager.
Bud Black is in his seventh season as Rockies manager.

Congratulations to Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black, who not only was celebrating his alma mater, San Diego State, reaching the NCAA men's basketball championship game over the weekend, but also was leading his team to big victories over the Padres, too.

Black, 65, certainly deserves it. He has managed 16 seasons, been to the postseason just twice, and rarely has had a team with the talent to compete.

He's managing the Rockies, a rebuilding team expected to finish last again in the NL West – but he keeps coming back for more, signing a one-year extension this spring through 2024.

“I love this game, the passion I have for this game,’’ Black tells USA TODAY Sports, “it’s still what fuels me. I like players. I like the teaching aspect of this position and working directly with the players.

“I just like the people in the game. The players, the trainers, the strength guys, executives, the media. It’s just enjoyable for me to come to the ballpark and be a part of this.’’

Black pitched 15 years in the big leagues, won a World Series title with the Kansas City Royals, another with the Los Angeles Angels as their pitching coach, worked in Cleveland’s front office, and managed the Padres before joining the Rockies in 2017, leading them to two consecutive playoff appearances.

The Rockies haven’t finished above fourth place since 2018, going 68-94 a year ago, but even the prospect of another long season refuses to dissuade his enthusiasm.

“Granted, I’ve been in the underdog seat for many of these years,’’ he said. “But just the win or the loss, keeps me going. The competition, that still drives me.’’

The outlook may be grim, the Rockies may still be a couple of years away from contending, but, hey, you can always dream.

“There’s always that hope, right?’’ Black says. “That never goes away. This game, anything can happen.’’

Around the basepaths

Julio Urias pitches against the Diamondbacks on opening day.
Julio Urias pitches against the Diamondbacks on opening day.

– Los Angeles Dodgers ace Julio Urias was perplexed and disappointed that the Dodgers didn’t reach out to talk about a contract extension this past winter.

Yet, considering he’s a free agent in just six months and represented by Scott Boras, it’s highly unlikely talks would have led to an extension.

Urias, 27, is considered the second-best free-agent pitcher coming onto the market behind Shohei Ohtani. He is 37-10 with a 2.57 ERA in the last two seasons, finishing seventh in the NL Cy Young voting in 2021 and third last season.

– The San Diego Padres say they still would like to sign outfielder Juan Soto before he’s a free agent in two years, but there were no contract talks this winter.

– Just how good was Japan’s starting rotation in the World Baseball Classic?

“It was the best staff in the history of the WBC,’’ one veteran scout said. “They had $1 billion worth of starting pitching.’’

– Another baseball tradition has vanished.

Official scorers have been instructed to no longer announce the pitching line of each pitcher in the press box, wanting them to instead focus all of their attention on the umpire and pitch clocks.

– If you’re keeping score at home, the Padres have $1.3 billion on their books through 2034.

  • Fernando Tatis Jr: $340 million through 2034.

  • Manny Machado: $350 million through 2033.

  • Xander Bogaerts: $280 million through 2033.

  • Jake Cronenworth: $80 million through 2030.

  • Yu Darvish: $108 million through 2028

  • Joe Musgrove: $100 million through 2027.

  • Robert Suarez: $46 million through 2027

– Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg echoed commissioner Rob Manfred’s optimism in his USA TODAY Sports interview that they should have a deal for a new stadium by the end of the season. Their lease at Tropicana Field expires after the 2027 season.

– What’s surprising is not that Shohei Ohtani earns the most money in endorsements by any baseball player at $40 million, according to Sportico, but that Mike Trout earns just $5 million and Aaron Judge earns $4 million.

The difference in endorsement money earned by NFL and NBA players over baseball players is staggering.

– The White Sox are cautiously optimistic that closer Liam Hendriks, who’s undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, will be able to return before June. They did not place him on the 60-day injured list to open the season.

“That,’’ White Sox GM Rick Hahn said, “is on purpose.’’

– Now that shifts are banned, maybe the .350 hitter drought will finally end.

There hasn’t been a .350 hitter in the National League in a full season since Albert Pujols (.357) in 2008 or one in the American League since Josh Hamilton (.359) in 2010.

– The Astros fear that All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve will be out now until at least June with his broken right thumb.

– The Yankees are honoring Ron Blomberg, the first designated hitter in MLB history 50 years ago.

“Who knew the DH was going to last 50 years?” Blomberg told the New York Post. “I never thought it was going to last three months. I looked at it as being a pinch-hitter. …

“The DH position changed the whole game and it still took almost 50 years for the NL to adopt it. Some people still hate it, but I think it’s great.”

– There were 14 pitch-clock violations on opening day, with the 15 games averaging 2 hours, 45 minutes.

There were five violations by batters, eight by pitchers and one by a catcher.

Astros manager Dusty Baker, who won his first World Series ring as a player in 1981, couldn’t believe the ring size difference winning it now as a manager.

“They would think that was some high school graduation ring compared to these new rings," Baker said. “Ten times bigger and probably 20 times more expensive.’’

The new rings weigh 15.3 carats and contain 624 diamonds.

– Chicago White Sox rookie manager Pedro Grifol is making a strong impression with the team’s hustle and aggressiveness in its first few games, a huge contrast from a year ago.

“I like how we’re playing right now,’’ White Sox starter Lucas Giolito told reporters. “Everybody is in the game. We’re playing hard. I like seeing guys hustle big-time on defense. We’re running balls out. If we do that, we’ll put ourselves in a good position.

The players celebrated Grifol’s first victory by wheeling him around in a laundry cart and spraying him with every liquid they could find.

He received 180 congratulatory text messages, including from current managers Phil Nevin of the Angels, A.J. Hinch of the Tigers, Derek Shelton of the Pirates to Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa and future Hall of Fame manager Jim Leyland.

– Perhaps no one enjoyed his opening-day victory more than Bruce Bochy, who returned to the field after a three-year absence, managing the Texas Rangers to their victory over the Phillies.

“The last three years, just watching Opening Day, I miss it," Bochy said. “This is one of the most exciting days you can have and being part of this, it does just make you that much more grateful to be a part of it. I missed the game, and to have the first game go like this, you realize how much you miss it.’’

– Perhaps it’s no reason for concern, but Phillies ace Aaron Nola hasn’t made it out of the fifth inning in four consecutive starts now, dating back to the postseason. It had happened only three times in his previous 34 starts.

– The Yankees are retiring uniforms at such a ridiculous rate that they have reached out to MLB to ask whether they could stop giving out numbers to their coaching staff.

The Yankees have retired 22 numbers, easily the most in MLB.

The Yankees offer just 75 numbers to their 40-man roster and large coaching staff, retiring 22 numbers and not issuing numbers worn by CC Sabathia (52), Masahiro Tanaka (19) and No. 69, last worn by reliever Alan Mills in 1990.

– Congratulations to Tampa Bay Rays starter Zach Eflin, whose wife, Lauren, delivered twin girls this past week, Hallie Laine and Austen Renae.

“It feels amazing,’’ Eflin told the Tampa Bay Times. “You know it’s really interesting being a father of one, one day and then the next day a father of three.’’

– Hard to believe that half the teams in baseball have now played in the World Series more recently than the Yankees in 2009.

– Veteran catcher Gary Sanchez, finally giving up on his hopes of landing a major-league contract, signed a minor-league deal with the San Francisco Giants worth a prorated $4 million if he makes the big leagues.

It’s a huge drop-off for the two-time All-Star and Silver Slugger winner, but he simply drew scarce interest.

He can opt out of his contract if the Giants don’t call him up to the big leagues b May 1.

– Atlanta may send a limo to pick up Nats pitcher Patrick Corbin the next time he’s scheduled to start against them.

Corbin, after losing once again on opening day, is 0-10 with a 7.11 ERA in his last 11 starts against Atlanta.

– It’s hard to believe that the Orioles have signed only one player to a multi-year contract since Mike Elias was hired as GM in November, 2018, with left-hander John Means having the honor.

They may want to consider Rutschman becoming the next.

– The sellouts at Miami’s loanDepot Park ended when the WBC left town.

The Marlins drew just 31,397, more than 6,000 seats shy of a full house.

Of course, it has been 14 years since the Marlins produced a winning record in a full season.

– The Detroit Tigers begin the season playing 37 of their first 40 games against teams with a winning record last season. They opened the season being outscored, 16-2, by the Tampa Bay Rays.

– The coolest moment of the upcoming week will be April 7 when the Pirates play their home opener against the Chicago White Sox.

Andrew McCutchen will be stepping to the plate wearing a Pirates uniform for the first time in six years.

– Prayers to Padres third base coach Matt Williams, 57, who underwent surgery last week for colon cancer.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB's opening weekend awards: Who made best, worst first impressions?