Itâ€™s the last day of the 2009 MLB regular season, a bittersweet moment if ever there was one.Â The daily rollercoaster that weâ€™ve all been on since the start of April is about to come to an end, but the playoffs look set to provide us with a host of exciting games. So much happens over the course of the season that itâ€™s interesting to look back to opening night and consider how things have worked out for those involved.
The Sunday night opener saw the reigning World Series champions the Philadelphia Phillies taking on the Atlanta Braves in front of a joyous crowd at Citizens Bank Park.Â
Opening games are always full of excitement for fans, not least because it gives them their first opportunity to see new players taking the field in their new uniforms. Derek Lowe made his debut for the Braves, immediately slotting into the top of their rotation.Â The capture of the free agent Lowe was one of the few bright spots in a frustrating offseason for Atlanta.Â He pitched brilliantly in the opener, giving up just two hits and no runs over eight impressive innings, but his performances tailed off (6.65 ERA in his last nine starts) from the middle of August, just when the Braves needed him most.
Brett Myers had the honour of pitching the opener for the Phillies and that turned out to be the highlight of his season (so far, at least). He only started nine further games during the regular season after he suffered a torn labrum in his right hip at the end of May.Â His return to the mound at the beginning of September was delayed by a bizarre eye injury which he initially claimed was caused while playing catch with his four year-old son and then a result of slipping while getting out of his truck.
Two Braves hitters also started well in the opener, only for their seasons to go south from then on.
Jordan Schafer impressed during Spring Training and earned himself a starting job on opening night in centre field, jumping to the Big Leagues from Double-A.Â He announced himself by becoming the ninety-ninth player in MLB history to hit a home run in his first Major League at-bat.Â However, that promising start was not a sign of things to come.Â Schafer struggled along to the end of May before he was demoted to Triple-A.Â It turned out he had been playing through a bone bruise to his left wrist and he only managed nine games with the Gwinnett Braves before being forced to sit out the rest of the season, ultimately having surgery on the wrist.
As well as rookies hoping to make a mark, every year Spring Training is full of Major Leaguers talking about changes they have made that will make all the difference for them, whether itâ€™s a batter having Lasik eye surgery or a pitcher learning a new change-up.
Jeff Francouer was one such hopeful player.Â The right-fielder hacked his way to a .239 batting average in 2008 (and a sub-.300 OBP) and needed to do something drastic to recapture the form he showed when he first made the Majors back in 2005. Apparently the answer for Francouer was a new, more open batting stance.Â It seemed to be working when he launched a home run in the opener and ESPNâ€™s Joe Morgan and Steve Phillips kept breaking down his new swing, explaining how it would help him see the ball better out of the pitcherâ€™s hand.Â As is so often the case, the change had only a temporary effect, to the extent that Braves were happy to trade him to their division rivals the Mets later in the season.
Brad Lidge hasnâ€™t been traded away, but plenty of Phillies fans would be happy to see him in another uniform right now.Â He was perfect throughout the 2008 Championship winning season and continued that trend in the opener. Â Lidge came into the game in the top of the ninth inning with the Phillies down 4-0 and pitched a three-up, three-down inning. Â Itâ€™s fair to say that trend hasnâ€™t continued down the stretch: the only thing automatic about the Philliesâ€™ closer heading into the postseason is that he will cause a heart attack or two.
But the Phillies are going to the postseason and thatâ€™s all what matters.Â The Braves had hopes of being in the same position back when the season started and an opening night win over the reigning World Series champs suggested they might just achieve their aim.Â It didnâ€™t materialise and itâ€™s a good reminder that the result of one regular season game shouldnâ€™t be overestimated.
Unless itâ€™s the final day of the season and youâ€™re still chasing a playoff spot, that is.
Twins-Tigers goes down to the wire
I canâ€™t let the day pass without mentioning the AL Central race: the one part of the postseason lineup still to be determined.Â The Royals-Twins game last night was outstanding.Â Zack Greinke and Nick Blackburn were dealing early on and when the Twins managed a rare four-run inning off the Royalsâ€™ ace, you thought they would be certain victors. However, the Royals are not just going through the motions as the season draws to a close and they tied the game at 4-4, silencing the pumped-up Metrodome crowd, before Michael Cuddyer hit a solo home run that made the difference in a 5-4 win.Â
Great pitching, a comeback, an exciting solo home run and a frenzied crowd: it doesnâ€™t get much better than that.