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Best Opening Day performances in MLB history

MLB.com @AJCassavell

We're constantly reminded that Opening Day victories aren't worth more than any other win on any other day. But if you were to poll every player in the Majors, most would tell you there's something special about the first game of the season. The rest ... well, they're probably lying.

Opening Day has seen its share of great performances over the years. Our job was to decipher the 10 best, using WPA (win probability added) as the defining metric. WPA is basically a barometer of how much an individual player contributed to his team's chances of winning.

We're constantly reminded that Opening Day victories aren't worth more than any other win on any other day. But if you were to poll every player in the Majors, most would tell you there's something special about the first game of the season. The rest ... well, they're probably lying.

Opening Day has seen its share of great performances over the years. Our job was to decipher the 10 best, using WPA (win probability added) as the defining metric. WPA is basically a barometer of how much an individual player contributed to his team's chances of winning.

That means these aren't necessarily the best box scores in Opening Day history. (Sorry, Dmitri Young.) Instead, they're the 10 best performances with regards to how much a player's contributions actually helped his team on that day.

10. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
April 1, 2013: Dodgers 4, Giants 0
Kershaw's line: 9 IP, 4 hits, 0 runs, HR as batter
WPA: 0.759

You know that old National League motto to "shut 'em out and hit one out"? It rang true for Kershaw on the first day of the 2013 season. Kershaw's pitching performance alone (0.518 WPA) wouldn't have been enough to get him on this list. But when he took a shutout into the bottom of the eighth inning against the hated Giants, Los Angeles opted to let Kershaw bat. That decision paid big dividends. Kershaw launched a George Kontos offering to straight-away center field for the first home run of his career. The Dodgers scored three more times in the inning, and Kershaw completed the shutout, needing just 94 pitches to do so. He became the first hurler in 60 years to throw a shutout and hit a homer on Opening Day.

9. Kirk Gibson, Tigers
April 7, 1986: Tigers 6, Red Sox 5
Gibson's line: 4-for-4, 2 HRs, 5 RBIs
WPA: 0.764

Only 38 players in history have gone 4-for-4 on Opening Day, and only four of them have done so for the Tigers. Perhaps no one made sure his four hits counted more than Gibson. In an Opening Day thriller against Boston at Tiger Stadium, Gibson hit two-run homers in the fifth and seventh innings, both of which gave the Tigers the lead. His heroics backed Jack Morris to one of his eight Opening Day wins -- tied for the most all-time. Gibson's first home run chased Red Sox starter Bruce Hurst and gave the Tigers a 4-2 lead. After Boston had rallied for three runs in the top of the seventh, Gibson put the Tigers back on top for good with a two-run shot off Sammy Stewart.

8. Willie Smith, Cubs
April 8, 1969: Cubs 7, Phillies 6, 11 innings
Smith's line: 1-for-1, walk-off HR, 2 RBIs
WPA: 0.788

It only took one swing for Smith to crack our top-10 list, but what a classic swing it was. Powered by two Ernie Banks home runs, the Cubs appeared headed for an easy victory on Opening Day 1969. But Philadelphia rallied to score three runs in the ninth and took the lead in the 11th on Don Money's RBI single. Banks popped out to lead off the bottom of the 11th, before catcher Randy Hundley singled. Cubs manager Leo Durocher then called upon Smith to pinch-hit for right fielder Jim Hickman. That's when Smith launched a 1-0 pitch from Barry Lersch into the right-field bleachers, etching his name in Wrigley Field lore.

7. Rip Sewell, Pirates
April 15, 1947: Pirates 1, Cubs 0
Line: 9 IP, 5 hits, 0 runs, K
WPA: 0.813

On the same day Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in Brooklyn, Pirates ace Rip Sewell turned in an Opening Day gem for the ages at Wrigley Field. Cubs sparkplug Stan Hack led off three times against Sewell and recorded three hits, but Sewell managed to strand Chicago's speedster all three times. Hank Greenberg's sixth-inning double put Pittsburgh on top, but the Cubs threatened to tie things up in the ninth when Sewell allowed the first two batters, Hack and Eddie Waitkus, to reach base. No matter: Sewell breezed through the Cubs' 3-4-5 hitters -- Andy Pafko, Phil Cavarretta and Bill Nicholson -- getting Nicholson to ground out to end the game. The Cubs and Pirates would respectively finish 25 and 32 games behind Robinson's Dodgers that season, but they sure combined for a thriller on Opening Day.

6. Jim Presley, Mariners
April 8, 1986: Mariners 8, Angels 4, 10 innings
Presley's line: 3-for-4, 2 HRs (walk-off), 6 RBIs
WPA: 0.872

It's really hard to fathom how Presley isn't ranked higher on this list. The Mariners' third baseman had one of the all-time great Opening Days against the Angels in 1986, doing the bulk of his damage with the game on the line in the ninth and 10th innings. With the Mariners down to their final three outs, Presley launched a game-tying two-run homer in the ninth. An inning later, Seattle loaded the bases for Presley, who hit a walk-off grand slam against Angels reliever Ken Forsch. Presley became the first Mariner ever to record a multi-home run game on Opening Day. (He was later joined by Ken Griffey Jr. in '97 and Richie Sexson in 2005.) And Presley is also one of only two players in Major League history to hit a walk-off grand slam on Opening Day -- joining Milwaukee's Sixto Lezcano, who did so against Boston in 1980.

5. Johnny Vander Meer, Reds
April 21, 1943: Reds 1, Cardinals 0, 11 innings
Vander Meer's line: 11 IP, 2 hits, 0 ER, 3 Ks
WPA: 0.886

Two seasons prior, Vander Meer had already ensconced his name in the record books with his back-to-back no-hitters. But at the start of the 1943 season, the Reds left-hander was still dealing. Vander Meer turned in an Opening Day performance for the ages, tossing an 11-inning shutout against the reigning-champion Cardinals. He held a vaunted Cardinals lineup featuring Stan Musial, Walker Cooper and Whitey Kurowski to just two hits. When Max Marshall's RBI single plated the game-winning run, Vander Meer joined Walter Johnson as the only pitchers in Major League history to throw a shutout of 11 innings or more on Opening Day. No one has accomplished the feat since.

4. Bob Feller, Indians
April 16, 1940: Indians 1, White Sox 0
Feller's line: 9 IP, 0 hits, 0 runs, 8 Ks
WPA: 0.888

There's really only one way a pitcher could top a performance like Vander Meer's, and Bob Feller did so three years earlier for the Indians. Feller tossed what remains the only no-hitter in Opening Day history, blanking the White Sox, in a 1-0 victory. Feller walked five hitters, including Hall of Famer Luke Appling in the bottom of the ninth. But he stranded Appling by getting Taffy Wright to ground out to second, completing the historic feat. Since then, only one player -- Bob Lemon in 1953 -- has even managed a one-hitter in the opener.

3. Ramon Hernandez, Reds
March 31, 2011: Reds 7, Brewers 6
Hernandez's line: 4-for-5, walk-off HR, 3 RBIs
WPA: 0.931

Hernandez would've made this spot on the list without any of his first four at-bats, but it doesn't hurt that he was already 3-for-4 when he strode to the plate in the bottom of the ninth. With the Reds trailing Milwaukee by three runs entering the frame, Brewers closer John Axford allowed the first three men to reach base, before the Reds drew one back with a sacrifice fly. That set the stage for Hernandez, who crushed a truly awful 0-1 fastball from Axford into the right-field bullpen. It clinched a miracle victory for the Reds, who had trailed by four runs in the seventh inning.

Video: MIL@CIN: Hernandez belts a walk-off shot in the ninth

2. Pete Rose, Reds
April 4, 1974: Reds 7, Braves 6, 11 innings
Rose's line: 3-for-5, BB, 3 runs, 2 2Bs
WPA: 1.003

No one lived for Opening Day quite like Pete Rose. Baseball's all-time hits leader was also the sport's all-time hits leader on Opening Day with 31. And Rose never got off to a better start to a season than he did in 1974. Rose reached base four times in a back-and-forth affair against the Braves. His leadoff walk sparked a three-run eighth that cut the Reds' deficit to one, and his RBI double off Phil Niekro an inning later plated George Foster to tie things up. Rose then took the game over in a way only Rose could. With two outs in the bottom of the 11th he smacked an opposite-field double off Braves reliever Buzz Capra. A few pitches later, Rose scored the game-winning run all the way from second base on a wild pitch -- the ultimate hustle play from Charlie Hustle.

1. Raul Mondesi, Dodgers
April 5, 1999: Dodgers 8, D-backs 6, 11 innings
Mondesi's line: 4-for-5, 2 HRs (walk-off), 6 RBIs
WPA: 1.056

In Major League history, no one has ever started a season with a bigger bang than Mondesi did against the D-backs in 1999. With the Dodgers down to their final out in the ninth, Mondesi cut loose on a 3-0 pitch and launched a game-tying three-run home run. Two innings later, it was time for more heroics from the Dodgers right fielder. After Gary Sheffield had reached on a walk, Mondesi crushed a two-run shot to left to seal the victory. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, it wasn't a sign of things to come. They finished 77-85, 23 games behind the D-backs, and Mondesi was traded to the Blue Jays in the offseason. But for one day at least, Mondesi graced Dodger Stadium with a performance for the ages -- perhaps the greatest Opening Day in history.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.