The aces come out for Opening Day, so one would think that lots of dominant pitching performances would follow.
But while there certainly have been many gems spun in season openers, not one of the 136 games on record in which a pitcher has struck out 16 or more has occurred in a team’s first game of the season.
There have been 21 outings of at least a dozen Ks -- since data became available in 1901 -- authored by 17 different pitchers. Hall of Famers are responsible for eight of those whiff-happy performances, but there also are some more surprising names on the list below.
1) Camilo Pascual: 15 Ks (1960 Senators)
Despite the explosion of strikeouts in recent seasons, nobody has topped the record set by this 5-foot-11 Cuban right-hander in the original Senators' final opener before the franchise moved to Minnesota. Pascual was a strikeout pitcher in his era, leading the American League three times. On this particular day at Griffith Stadium, the five-time All-Star pitched a complete game and set a career high in Ks -- which he matched the next season -- in a 10-1 win over the Red Sox. Boston scored its only run on a homer by Ted Williams, who was beginning his final season.
2-tie) Shane Bieber: 14 Ks (2020 Indians)
Bieber, who had a breakout season in 2019, which included an All-Star Game MVP Award on his home mound in Cleveland, was brilliant in the season opener for 2020 against the Royals at Progressive Field. He struck out 14 using a devastating fastball-knuckle-curve combination, as well as a few changeups and sliders thrown in for good measure. He walked only one and gave up four hits over six scoreless innings and 97 pitches. The 14 strikeouts were one shy of Bieber's career high, which came in a five-hit shutout of the Orioles on May 19, 2019. The righty went on to strike out at least eight in each of his 12 starts during the shortened season, earning the AL Cy Young Award.
2-tie) Randy Johnson: 14 Ks (1993 and '96 Mariners)
The Big Unit ranks second all-time in strikeouts. His 47 total games with at least 14 Ks are 11 more than second-place Nolan Ryan and more than three times as many as any other pitcher. Two of those came in openers. In 1993, the lanky left-hander shut down the defending champion Blue Jays, who would go on to win another title that year. In '96, he surrendered a two-run homer to Frank Thomas in the first inning but otherwise blanked the White Sox over seven innings at the Kingdome. His Mariners won both games.
2-tie) Don Drysdale: 14 Ks (1960 Dodgers)
In one of his seven Opening Day outings for the Dodgers, Drysdale got off to a fast start in defending his 1959 National League strikeout crown. Facing the Cubs at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the future Hall of Famer allowed two runs in the third inning but otherwise kept Chicago off the board over the course of an 11-inning, complete-game victory. For good measure, Drysdale even hit a triple at the plate.
6-tie) J.R. Richard: 13 Ks (1980 Astros)
The imposing 6-foot-8 righty was coming off consecutive seasons of more than 300 strikeouts when he faced off against the Dodgers at the Astrodome. Richard set the tone early by striking out eight of the first 10 batters he faced and ultimately pitched eight innings for the win. Unfortunately, while Houston won the NL West by a game over Los Angeles, Richard would pitch only 16 more times. He suffered a stroke that summer, effectively ending his career.
6-tie) Dave McNally: 13 Ks (1970 Orioles)
McNally was a big part of brilliant Baltimore rotations that captured consecutive AL pennants from 1969-71, winning a championship that second year. The lefty wasn't a big strikeout pitcher, but on this particular day at Cleveland Stadium, he struck out 11 of the final 14 Indians batters he faced. The complete-game effort provided the first of McNally's AL-leading 24 wins that season.
6-tie) Bob Gibson: 13 Ks (1967 Cardinals)
This was the first of nine consecutive Opening Day starts for the fearsome righty, who would go on to take World Series MVP honors that October. Gibson kicked off that campaign against the Giants at Busch Stadium, striking out the first five batters he faced, including Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. He outdueled fellow Hall of Famer Juan Marichal and is one of two pitchers with a 12-K shutout in an opener.
6-tie) Lon Warneke: 13 Ks (1934 Cubs)
The other pitcher to strike out at least 12 while throwing a shutout on Opening Day was Warneke, a five-time All-Star righty who came within two outs of a no-hitter at Cincinnati's Crosley Field. While he made 343 starts in his 15-year career, this was the only one in which Warneke reached double-digit Ks.
10-tie) Shane Bieber: 12 Ks (2021 Indians)
Bieber extended his streak of starts with at least eight strikeouts to 13 with another strong Opening Day outing in 2021 against the Tigers. Though Bieber had his swing-and-miss stuff, Detroit was able to score three times over the first two innings against the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner at Comerica Park, with two of those runs coming on a first-inning homer by Miguel Cabrera. Bieber gave up five hits and also walked three batters.
10-tie) Max Scherzer: 12 Ks (2019 Nationals)
Scherzer became the fourth pitcher in Major League history to strike out 10 or more batters on Opening Day in back-to-back years, joining Félix Hernández, Randy Johnson and Walter Johnson. Ultimately, he racked up 12, setting the franchise record for strikeouts on Opening Day, but the Nationals fell, 2-0, to the Mets.
10-tie) Chris Archer: 12 Ks (2016 Rays)
Ultimately, this was a frustrating game to begin a frustrating season for Archer. Despite the dozen strikeouts against Toronto, he gave up two runs in just five innings and took the first of his AL-high 19 losses.
10-tie) Félix Hernández: 12 Ks (2007 Mariners)
This was the first of many Opening Day assignments for King Félix, who was days shy of his 21st birthday when he dazzled the A's over eight scoreless innings in Seattle in a 4-0 Mariners win. That made him the second-youngest pitcher on this list.
10-tie) Pedro Martinez: 12 Ks (2005 Mets)
Martinez had just left the World Series champion Red Sox to sign with the Mets and stretched his streak of consecutive Opening Day starts to eight. The Hall of Famer allowed a three-run homer to Cincinnati's Adam Dunn in the first inning before striking out 12 of his next 14 opponents. The Mets lost, 7-6.
10-tie) Gibson: 12 Ks (1975 Cardinals)
In a matchup of pitchers with previous 12-K season openers, it was Gibson who repeated the feat but McNally who got the win, for the Expos. This was the beginning of the end for the 39-year-old Gibson, who was sent to the bullpen in July and pitched the final game of his Hall of Fame career on Sept. 3.
10-tie) Nolan Ryan: 12 Ks (1973 and '75 Angels)
Both of these years, the Angels hosted the Royals, and Ryan tossed a complete game for the win, allowing two runs. In '74, Ryan faced the White Sox on Opening Day and walked 10 against just five Ks -- but still allowed only two runs and won. Fitting for a pitcher who is MLB's all-time leader in both strikeouts and free passes.
10-tie) Gary Nolan: 12 Ks (1969 Reds)
A first-round pick by Cincinnati in 1966, Nolan posted a 2.51 ERA over the next two years to earn the Opening Day nod in '69. The righty was still just 20 years and 315 days old at the time, making him the youngest Opening Day starter with at least a dozen strikeouts -- though he took the loss against Drysdale and the Dodgers.
10-tie) Dick Selma: 12 Ks (1969 Padres)
A couple of days after Nolan's performance, Selma took the mound in San Diego for the first game in Padres history. Though the expansion club ultimately went 52-110, it won the opener behind Selma's dominant one-run complete game against Houston. It was one of just three starts Selma made for the Padres before he was traded to the Cubs.
10-tie) Tony Cloninger: 12 Ks (1966 Braves)
Cloninger's biggest claim to fame may have been come three months later, when he became the only pitcher to launch two grand slams in a game. He didn't do anything with his bat in this one and ultimately took a 13-inning, complete-game loss on Willie Stargell's two-run homer.
10-tie) Gary Bell: 12 Ks (1960 Indians)
Through 10 innings at Cleveland Stadium, Bell had thrown 10 scoreless innings for the Indians, and Frank Lary had done the same for the Tigers. However, both were knocked out in the 11th, and Detroit went on to win in 15.