A Veteran Victory

This picture says it all: Opening Day in the Bronx, and a pure blue sunny sky.

Bronx, N.Y., April 13, 2012 – In an almost perfect day in Yankee Stadium Friday afternoon, the Yankees ran their home opener record since the old Stadium reopened in 1976 to 28-8 with a 5-0 whitewashing of the Anaheim Angels. Nick Swisher, two days off a walkoff home run in Baltimore, delivered a first-inning three-run double, and a veteran free agent signee made holding this lead look simple.

When you’re talking big days in as storied a franchise as the one that plays in the Bronx, players that have gone before must be honored, and today was no exception. So when Captain Derek Jeter led his team out to the field, as he does every game in which he plays the field, all nine players gathered behind the mound, forming an expectant semicircle. Then newly retired Jorge Posada took the mound to a standing ovation, and he threw the ceremonial first pitch to his father.

The starting nine defenders ring the back of the mound awaiting ex-teammate Jorge Posada, who would throw out the ceremonial first pitch to his father.

A few minutes later the 40-year-old ex-catcher was replaced by 37-year-old Hiroki Kuroda, and the game was on. The Angels actually pushed Kuroda to 19 pitches in the opening inning after Erick Aybar struck for the first of his two singles leading off. Hiroki’s first Yankee game last Saturday in Tampa spun out of control after a first-inning error. But, at least this time, the veteran righty from Japan’s effort was not about being perfect (until later, at least); it was about pitching around trouble. The visitors not only had a baserunner in each of the first five innings, three of them leading off, they bunched a hit and walk into the fifth, the last inning an Angels would reach base until the ninth.

Hiroki Kuroda displayed consistency, repeating his well-honed motion 108 times before an infield single ended his day in the ninth.

Never straying from a pitching arsenal dominated by low nineties fastballs and cutters just a bit slower, mixed with the occasional curve and slider, he held the Angels to two walks and five singles, two of the latter infield safeties. Just two batters reached second and died there; two others were removed on beautifully turned double plays. Pitching to a strikes/balls ratio of 71/37, he found the zone on first pitches 19 of 29 times. He made opposing batters swing and miss just six times, but struck out six in eight-plus frames. Once one-time Yank Bobby Abreu reached him for a ninth-inning infield single on his 108th toss, David Roberston came on and crowned the day quickly, coaxing a third double-play grounder, and a seventh strike out.

The Yankee offense against Ervin Santana and two relievers was good, not great, and was helped a great deal when the Anaheim starter lost the strike zone following a sharp Alex Rodriguez two-out single in the first, as he walked the bases loaded on the next nine pitches. And Nick Swisher made him pay with a drive that short-hopped the wall in right center and scored all three runs.

Apparently warming to the third spot in the order, Alex Rodriguez lifted a historic 425-foot blast to center in the third.

Pregame, Joe Girardi made a subtle yet significant lineup shift, moving the struggling Rodriguez into the third spot, with line-drive hitter Robinson Cano following in fourth position. The move did nothing for the 0-for-3 second baseman, but A-Rod responded with three straight hits, all well stroked up the middle. These included his first home run of the season and 630th of his career, tying him with Ken Griffey, Jr. for fifth all time. The majestic blast carried into Monument Park beyond the center field wall, making the score 4-0 in the third. And Curtis Granderson, hitting in his customary second spot against a righthanded pitcher, suffered through a three-strike-out game, but broke through for a fifth-inning home run into the short porch in right to forge the final 5-0 score.

Coming off a walkoff homer Wednesday, Nick Swisher is introduced before the game. His three-run first-inning double was all the offense Hiroki Kuroda would need.

A year ago, the Yanks were started on their way to a 7-4 win over Baltimore on a freezing, damp and misty April 13 evening in the Bronx with three runs in the first, runs that crossed following a Rodriguez home run. A year before that, the Angels were the victim again, by a 7-5 score. This is also a day that saw some big moments in the old Stadium across the street. April 13, 1978, was Reggie Candy Bar Day, when the ex-Yankee slugger carried his mates to a victory, again on a three-run first-inning blast. But during the glorious 1998 season 20 years later, this was the day a beam fell in the loge, an occurrence that may have made the rumored eventual replacement of old Yankee Stadium and the construction of this new one a virtual necessity.

On April 13, 1926, veteran Washington Senator legend Walter Johnson threw his seventh Opening Day shutout at the age of 41, a 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Athletics in 15 innings. At 37, with this his first opening shutout in major league baseball, Kuroda will not be able to match that record in four years. But facing an Anaheim Angels club picked to make the playoffs after having added multiple MVP Albert Pujols (one single in in four at bats), the free agent veteran signee has made himself a welcome sight in the big ballyard in the South Bronx.