A Second Chance at a First Impression

We weren’t there tonight, but baseball happened anyway. Much like Christmas did despite the Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ famous story, “Somehow or other, it came just the same.”

We were robbed of Opening Day together this year. We’ve been robbed of months of sports, of being together, hugging our friends and family, seeing the world, living our lives the way we always have. We are forever changed. But in the midst of a still-raging pandemic, we still and finally received the gift of baseball, and it was some good baseball.

Well, unless you’re an Orioles fan.

The pregame ceremony was going to be unique no matter what, but the ‘In Memoriam’ montage featuring John Altobelli, who died alongside Kobe Bryant in the tragic helicopter crash on January 26, and Boston legend Pete Frates, who started the ‘ALS Ice Bucket Challenge,’ was particularly heart-wrenching. Boston is a flawed city in many ways, but the people we lost this year deserved all of us standing together remembering them at Fenway, and it was heartbreaking that we were not able to do so.

The question of how the Red Sox would approach honoring the Black Lives Matter movement was another hot-button topic. While the franchise has been working for the last few years to move forward from the racist legacy that has lingered for decades, the work is far from done. Earlier this week, the wall facing the Mass Pike, under the David Ortiz Bridge, was redone to read ‘Black Lives Matter’ in the classic Red Sox font. Last month, they issued a strong public response to Torii Hunter’s statements about being a Black player on a visiting team at Fenway. But people were waiting to see if anyone would kneel. Mookie Betts had been the only player to kneel the night before, with his new team. Throughout MLB, the sentiment was that everyone could make their own choice, but at the same time, because of their distant and enduring history, the Red Sox would have been publicly condemned had no one knelt tonight. In fact, I later saw people condemning them for not kneeling all together.

Multiple members of the Red Sox staff, including new President of Baseball Ops, Chaim Bloom, wore Black Lives Matter shirts for the game. And when it came time to kneel, multiple players and coaches, including Jackie Bradley Jr., Alex Verdugo, and first-base coach Tom Goodwin, took a knee. Michael Chavis placed his hand on Bradley’s shoulder in solidarity. Manager Ron Roenicke’s response: “We’re supporting a change that needs to happen.” 1https://twitter.com/PeteAbe/status/1286862536411938821?s=20 Needless to say, the evening was even more emotionally-charged than I had even anticipated.

And then, the ballgame itself. Nathan Eovaldi made the start tonight, throwing 6 innings of 5-hit, 2-walk, 1-run ball. He’s never been a particularly high-strikeout pitcher, but that doesn’t matter when you’re still shutting down the opposing team. His velocity reached 100 on the first pitch, and stayed high throughout the night, reminding all of us just how nasty he can be when he’s healthy. The starter who became a hero in the 2018 World Series threw 89 pitches tonight before Roenicke called for the bullpen, a wise choice given how much of this team’s success (or lack hinges on Nasty Nate; now more than ever, with Eduardo Rodriguez pushed back due to myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscles that has been seen in many COVID-19 patients, Nathan Eovaldi is the last vestige of 2018 pitching dominance this team has left.

But despite a lone solo home run allowed by Austin Brice in the 7th, the bullpen held it down for the remaining innings. Phillips Valdez, in particular, impressed tonight. Though he did hit two Orioles batters, he also threw two scoreless frames including getting Rio Ruiz to strike out swinging to end the game. His pitches were mostly in the low 90s, but he pounded the strike zone and not a single Orioles batter could get a hit off of him. Obviously, there’s something to be said about the fact that he was facing one of the worst lineups in baseball, but it was still encouraging to see a Red Sox reliever other than Brandon Workman shutting an offense down. After all, the Red Sox did lose multiple games to this team last year.

But the offense reminded us that despite Mookie Betts’ decision to remain on the west coast until he’s nearly 40, there is still an incredible amount of bat power to appreciate. And almost everyone had a chance (or three) to shine tonight. Jackie Bradley Jr., often underappreciated and lambasted for his offense, had the team’s first extra-base hit of the season when he led off the bottom of the 3rd. He finished the night with 3 hits, including a pair of doubles, 2 RBI, a walk, and just 1 strikeout. When he’s got his bat figured out, he’s absolutely lethal. Just look at his MVP performance in the 2018 ALCS.

José Peraza made an immediate impact in his Red Sox debut, as well. Batting 9th in the lineup tonight, he immediately drove in JBJ in the 3rd inning with a double of his own. It’s worth noting that all four doubles hit in the 3rd inning were hit to virtually the same spot in the left-field corner.

Peraza wasn’t the only new addition who made a strong first impression, because Kevin Pillar, playing right field, was dominant at the plate as well. He contributed the third and fourth Red Sox runs of the night, and along with JD Martinez, and JBJ, had himself a 3-hit night.

Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts did struggle at the plate tonight, but I’m confident they’ll warm up. Like his teammate Michael Chavis, who went hitless tonight, Devers still needs to learn more patience at the plate. He is still such an eager little puppy to just be back playing with his friends that he’s going at it too hard in the batter’s box. He went hitless, while his “Big Bro” Xander managed 1 hit. Compared to their teammates tonight, these numbers weren’t great, but hitting a baseball at the Major League level is still the hardest thing to do. Given their 2019 performances, I have no doubt.

Speaking of carrying over momentum from last season – which will be harder to do than ever before given the amount of time passed – it will be interesting to see how Christian Vazquez does offensively this season. His home run numbers from last year were higher than in the entire rest of his career combined. He went 2-for-4 tonight with an RBI, run scored, a walk, and no strikeouts. Hopefully, we get to see him hit some more of those pleasantly surprising bombs this season.

The only really frustrating spot in the lineup was Andrew Benintendi. The Red Sox put together 17 hits tonight, and not a single one belonged to the man who inexplicably is still batting in the leadoff spot. I think that one of the reasons why people were so concerned about losing Mookie was for this exact reason. Nearly every game in the leadoff spot, he was getting on base or rounding them for an immediate ‘1’ on the scoreboard. His dominant performance from the jump revved up his teammates, so losing him from both the leadoff spot and the team feels enormous. And it is a huge loss, I won’t sugarcoat it, but there are still better replacements for leadoff than the person currently filling in. At least give someone else a shot.

By the time the 9th inning was over, the Red Sox had put together 8 doubles, a new franchise Opening Day record, and the first team to accomplish the feat since the Pirates in 1936. They scored 13 runs on 17 hits, despite hitting a single home run. That 11-run gap in tonight’s score is also now their largest margin of victory in their Opening Day history, beating out 1919 and 1973, when they scored 10 more runs than the Yankees each time. 2https://twitter.com/SoxNotes/status/1286896755100000256?s=20 According to Alex Speier, or as Dennis Eckersley fondly calls him, “Stat Masterson,” those 13 runs are the franchise’s second-most ever on an Opening Day. The franchise record is 15 runs, set on that Opening Day in 1973, the day the Designated Hitter was born. Interestingly enough, Orlando Cepeda was the team’s first-ever DH that day, and went 0-for-6 with a pair of strikeouts that day. Baseball is consistent in its inconsistency, after all.

I was nervous about baseball coming back. Would I still love it? Would I remember how to live-tweet a game? Would the pitching destroy the last remaining shreds of my sanity? Would they be able to win without Mookie? Would I be able to sit through nine innings of something now that I can barely keep track of what day of the week it is and time is virtually meaningless?

The answer to all of these questions is yes. And watching them hustle tonight, a small spark ignited in my soul that maybe this season won’t be as unbearable as I’ve built it up to be in my mind with all the (justified) panic about the pitching. There is still so much talent here, and they don’t want to waste a single game. It’s been 300 days since their last win, but Red Sox still remember how to get it done, even if it’s against the Orioles.

But more than just feeling happy about the win, I feel grateful. The Red Sox won on Opening Day in their beautiful ballpark. It was starting to feel like we’d never get here, and then we finally did, and our team greeted us with a win. So no matter how the rest of this short, weird little season plays out, I will be grateful that we had baseball at all, and one heck of a good game, at that. And like I said after the exhibition game the other night, getting to play Opening Day after a pair of exhibition games was the rare second chance to make a first impression. And impress they did. Hopefully, they keep it going. But we’ll always have tonight.

Photos: Red Sox

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