Box score of the day: An ace, briefly

March 26th, 2020

Thursday was supposed to be Opening Day, and while the coronavirus outbreak has pushed that back for an indefinite period, we can at least reminisce about a March 26 when baseball was played.

The year was 2008. The site was the Tokyo Dome, where the Red Sox and A’s were playing the last of a two-game season-opening series.

Boston had won the first, 6-5, as Daisuke Matsuzaka was solid in his return to Japan (five innings, two runs), and Manny Ramírez followed a game-tying rally in the ninth inning with a go-ahead two-run double in the 10th.

But the A’s would fight back against the defending World Series champions, who were headed to 95 wins and another appearance in the American League Championship Series. While Oakland scuffled to a 75-86 record in 2008, it took this one by a score of 5-1. Let’s break down our box score of the day:

Player of the game: Rich Harden, SP, A’s
Over the last couple of decades, the A have produced some terrific pitching talent, headlined by the Big Three of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. Harden, though, may have been better than all of them -- or could have been, if his body had allowed it. As evidence, here are all of the pitchers in history to have a season (minimum 140 innings) pairing an ERA+ of at least 200 (twice as good as league average) with a K-rate of at least 30%.

Jacob deGrom (2018)
Chris Sale (2018)
Blake Snell (2018)
Corey Kluber (2017)
Clayton Kershaw (2016)
Rich Harden (2008)
Pedro Martínez (four times, 1997-2002)

Harden was that dominant in 2008, which began with him outdueling Boston’s Jon Lester, who was fresh off winning the World Series clincher in ‘07. At the Tokyo Dome, Harden allowed just one run on three hits -- including a Ramírez homer -- over six innings and struck out nine. "Overpowering," as the ESPN broadcast noted.

But even in 2008, Harden missed a month with a shoulder strain and then in July was traded to the Cubs in a deal that later would be best known for sending Josh Donaldson to Oakland. At the time, though, Harden's superb stretch run for Chicago (1.77 ERA in 12 starts) helped seal a division title.

But that was a high point for Harden, whose potential was marred by numerous trips to the injured list, both before and after. Only once (2004) did he throw 150 innings in a season, and more shoulder woes cut short his career. His last game was back in Oakland in September 2011, before his 30th birthday. What if he had stayed healthy? Unfortunately, we’ll never know.

Remember him? Jack Cust, PH, A’s
In the sixth inning, Cust pinch-hit for Chris Denorfia with two outs and Kurt Suzuki at second base, and drew a walk against left-hander Javier López. It was hardly a surprising result. While not nearly as long-tenured or well known as Three True Outcomes kings such as Adam Dunn and Rob Deer, Cust outpaced them all.

*Highest career TTO rate**
Min. 2,500 PA
1) Jack Cust: 53.0%
2) Russell Branyan: 50.5%
3) Chris Carter: 50.3%
4) Adam Dunn: 49.9%
5) Rob Deer: 49.1%
*(HR+BB+SO / PA)

Ultimately, Cust probably will get passed on that list by members of this current generation of sluggers, such as Joey Gallo (current TTO-rate: 59.3% in 1,559 PA). But he remains something of a cult favorite, and 2008 was his masterpiece: 598 PA, 33 HR, an AL-high 111 BB, and an AL-high 197 SO, good for a whopping 57% TTO-rate.

He wore THAT uniform? Mike Sweeney, DH, A’s
Sweeney is remembered as a Royal, having played 13 seasons, made five All-Star teams and racked up 1,398 hits in Kansas City. In 2015, he was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame.

But after a second-straight injury-shortened season in 2007, Sweeney left the club to sign a Minor League deal with Oakland. He went 2-for-4 in this game, his first A’s start, and was hitting as high as .326 in May, but played only two games after that month due to knee injuries and was released in September. After just 42 games with the A’s, Sweeney played 130 more with the Mariners and Phillies, retiring after 2010 with a .297 career average.

Before he was big: Brandon Moss, RF, Red Sox
An eighth-round pick by the Sox in 2002, a 24-year-old Moss hit his first Major League home run in the season opener the day before, a game-tying shot in the ninth inning off A’s closer Huston Street. But in the second game of the series, he struck out in all three plate appearances.

Moss wasn’t long for Boston. About four months after this game, he was shipped to the Pirates as part of the three-team blockbuster that sent Ramírez to the Dodgers and Jason Bay to the Sox. Moss struggled in Pittsburgh, but later blossomed, coincidentally, in Oakland. He contributed to three straight playoff teams there from 2012-14, hitting .254/.340/.504 with 76 homers and earning his only All-Star selection.

Last call: Sean Casey, PH, Red Sox
Casey made his Boston debut in this game, pinch-hitting for Moss in the ninth inning and grounding into a double play. It was one of 69 games “The Mayor” played for the Sox in his final season, when the affable first baseman batted .322 to finish his 12-year career -- spent largely in Cincinnati -- at a shiny .302. Casey remains involved in the game, but as an analyst on MLB Network.