The Greatest Opening Day Start in Baltimore Orioles History
The Baltimore Orioles open up their regular season against the Boston Red at Camden Yards today and Chris Tillman has been tapped to continue his mastery of the Red Sox from last season. Tillman made six starts against the Red Sox last season and went 3-1 with a 2.65 ERA; the Orioles went 5-1 in those starts. Over 11 career starts against Boston he is 4-2 with a 2.74 ERA. If the Orioles expect to compete in the American League East this season, and for a division title, they will need Tillman to continue that trend of coming up big against division rivals and that all starts today.
While the Orioles and fans are hoping for a huge start out of Tillman today, and to get into the win column to start the season 1-0, could he potentially challenge for the greatest Opening Day start in Orioles history?
It won’t be easy – it’ll be tough as hell actually.
He will be challenging players like Jeremy Guthrie, Mike Mussina, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, and Rick Sutcliffe. But of all the starters in Orioles history who have started on opening day (63 different starters have started on Opening Day), which one really shines above the rest?
Guthrie shut the Tampa Bay Rays down over eight innings in 2011. Mussina is tied with Palmer for most starts in opening day history for the Orioles with six, and you would expect him to have performed admirably to have a few gems of his own. Palmer tossed a shutout against the Detroit Tigers in 1975, walking none, striking out four, and giving up just three hits. The Tigers were the worst team in baseball that year though. He shut the Red Sox out over eight innings in 1976, but wasn’t necessarily dominant.
Rick Sutcliffe, on the other hand, was masterful against the Cleveland Indians on April 6, 1992. It was a game that pitted Sutcliffe against Charles Nagy. Nagy went the distance and gave up just two runs on six hits and a walk. Sutcliffe was simply better though, shutting the Indians out over nine innings and allowing just five hits and a walk while striking out six.
The shutout is nice of course, but it was really the way in which he attacked the Indians that day which made this opening day start truly great.
Sutcliffe threw 110 pitches, facing hitters such as Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar, and Albert Belle in their primes and he just attacked them. He threw 65 strikes with 22 of them looking and another seven swinging. His lone walk was given to Belle but he still only threw 10 pitches to the slugger, five for strikes, and that is incredibly effective as far as pitch usage goes. Considering that the wind was blowing at 12mph that day and going from left to right, it’s a wonder that none of the 16 fly balls given up by Sutcliffe went out of the park.
As far as some of the advanced, or semi-advanced, metrics are concerned – Sutcliffe’s start this day tallied an 82 on the Game Score scale created by Bill James. He alone added .554 points of win probability to the Orioles odds of winning this game, in large part due to the 4.4 (RE24) runs he managed to save by getting a key double play, ground ball, or strikeout.
This Orioles team wouldn’t make the playoffs but they did go on to win 89 games, finishing third in the East Division, and Sutcliffe did exactly what he was brought in to do. Throw a lot of innings, he finished the year with 237 1/3 IP, and mentor young pitchers Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald, and Arthur Rhodes. As a result of his mentoring Mussina would go on to become one of the greatest pitchers in Orioles history, McDonald did well enough as a mid-rotation guy, and Rhodes had a long career as a superb relief pitcher.
Sutcliffe would go on to pitch just two more seasons, one with the Orioles in 1993 and the other with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1994. He finished his career with 171 wins, a 4.08 ERA, 72 complete games, and 18 shutouts over more than 2,500 innings of work.