In this third and final part to the series looking back at opening day starting pitchers, we turn our attention to the Tony La Russa era (1996 – 2010).
Andy Benes (1996) 1 no decision
The Tony La Russa era got off to a great start when an old friend stepped into the batters box at Shea Stadium, just before 1pm on April Fools Day. Willie McGee had spent the last few years with Oakland, San Francisco and Boston, but had come home when he signed a free agent contact with the Cardinals in the off-season. Even though he grounded out to start the game, something was right when we saw Willie wearing the Birds on the Bat. That enthusiasm was short-lived when Royce Clayton stepped up to the plate following the McGee groundout. That was a clear signal that Clayton would be La Russa’s shortst0p in 1996, not Ozzie Smith – even though the Wizard seemed to have plenty in the tank at age 41.
The Mets starter, Bobby Jones, struggled terribly in his short outing, not making it out of the fourth inning. He wasn’t fooling anybody and the Cardinals hit him hard, and often. A pair of home runs by John Mabry and Willie McGee in the fourth inning forced Mets manager Dallas Green to go to his bullpen early. At that point the Cardinals had a commanding 6-0 lead, but that would disappear in a hurry. Blas Minor, Jerry DiPoto, Doug Henry and John Franco would combine for 5 1/3 scoreless innings.
Pitching at a brisk pace, as you should with a big lead, Benes got into a bit of trouble with a pair of long balls from the bats of Todd Hundley and former Cardinal Bernard Gilkey. Gilkey’s homer in the sixth woke up Benes as he struck out the Mets 3-4-5 hitters to end his day. He left the game with a 6-3 lead. If the bullpen could just hold it.
They didn’t and it all happened in the span of about 10 minutes. Rick Honeycutt would retire the first two batters he faced, but then two consecutive singles brought the tying run to the plate. And it brought Tony La Russa out of the dugout. Cory Bailey would face just one batter, Chris Jones who was pinch hitting for Jerry DiPoto. Jones would single, driving in a run and putting runners at the corners. Again, Tony La Russa makes the trip to the mound, this time calling on Tony Fossas. A dribbler down the 3rd base line and a line drive barely over the head of the second baseman tied the game at six. The winning run would score on a sacrifice fly that the Cardinals would turn into an inning ending double play when Bernard Gilkey didn’t anticipate the throw home being cut off, ending up in a rundown.
That’s where the game would end with the Mets taking the season opener, 7-6. Tony Fossas would take the loss in relief.
Not a good way to start the Tony La Russa era, 88 wins later, the Cardinals found themselves in first place in the newly formed NL Central. They would sweep the Padres in the NL Divisional Series, but lose the NLCS to the Atlanta Braves, after being up 3 games to 1 in the series.
Todd Stottlemyre (1997-1998 ) 1-0 1 no decision
Todd Stottlemyre would get the 1997 season opener in Montreal. He would face Jim Bullinger in a pitchers duel. Both men were sharp early. A leadoff single in the third inning by Shane Andrews would give the Expos their first run in the game when he would be sacrificed into scoring position, and then scored on a single by Mark Grudzielanek. The Cardinals tied it in the sixth when Delino DeShields led off with a triple, and scored on a wild pitch.
The Expos would take a 1-1 tie into the bottom of the ninth inning when the Cardinals bullpen failed, as they had in the previous season. And the victim would again be Tony Fossas. Rich Batchelor would start the inning after pitching a rather uninteresting eighth. A dribbler of a hit would put a runner on first base. In comes Fossas and bad things happened quickly. A single and intentional walk would load the bases. Initially this would seem to be working out when Fossas coaxed an infield ground out, forcing the runner at the plate. But then a bit of wildness ended the game as Fossas walked in the winning run. Batchelor would take the hard luck loss in this one.
A week later, the same two teams would meet for the St. Louis home opener. Alan Benes, the younger brother of Andy Benes, would get the start for the Cardinals and would pitch extremely well. He would allow just a single run in five innings of work. Jeff Juden of the Expos was just as good in his six innings. This game would be in the hands of the relievers, and the Cardinals Mark Petkovsek would the hero of this game. In four innings of relief, he would allow just two hits, while striking out three and walking nobody. As with the season opener, the game would go into the bottom of the ninth, tied at 1 run apiece. Until Willie McGee stepped up to the plate with 2 outs. He would send the big crowd home happy when he hit a walk-off home run off Ugueth Urbina.
Todd Stottlemyre would get one more opening day start when the Dodgers visited St. Louis on March 31, 1998. The big right-hander was brilliant, throwing seven shutout innings. For the first three innings, Dodger starter Ramon Martinez matched Stottlemyre, pitch for pitch – but then came the fourth inning. Gary Gaetti would lead off with a double, followed by a Tom Lampkin single. The Cardinals played for a big inning and held Gaetti at third. Martinez would toughen as he strikes out Todd Stottlemyre and Royce Clayton. With two men now out, the pivotal moment of the game would come as Delino DeSheilds works a walk out of Martinez, loading the bases. Up to the plate stepped Mark McGwire and it was very quickly 4-0. The only noise louder than Big Mac’s contact of the baseball was the cheering of the huge crowd.
The Dodgers bullpen would give up two more runs late, but the game was well over by then. Stottlemyre would pitch into the eighth inning, and Lance Painter, John Frascatore and Braden Looper would finish the game, not allowing a Dodgers run.
Donovan Osborne (1999) 1 no decision
A former number 1 draft pick, and top minor league prospect, the troubled lefty would get the opening day start in 1999. In case you are wondering why, the remainder of the rotation was Kent Bottenfield, Darren Oliver, Kent Merker and Jose Jimenez. Since a hot start to his rookie season in 1992, Osborne had struggled. He also had injury troubles that cost him at least a year of his career, and in another month, they would come back to take away the remainder of his 1999 season.
The Milwaukee Brewers would open the 1999 season in St. Louis, and it was one ugly game.
Troubles for the Cardinals started in the third inning when Osborne had to be taken out of the game. You don’t expect your starter to throw a complete game right out of spring training, but you also don’t expect to be into your bullpen after just two innings.
The first man in was Mike Busby. After one quiet inning of work, he got lit up like a Christmas Tree in the fourth inning. The Brewers would send eight men to the plate, and then the smoke finally cleared, they had a 5-1 lead. They would extend that lead to 7-1 when Manny Aybar gives up a 2 run homer to Jeremy Burnitz the next inning.
The lone Cardinals highlight would come in the home half of the sixth inning. David Weathers was in to pitch and Mark McGwire would step up to the plate. We know that Albert Pujols likes to hit home runs off of Weathers, and so does Big Mac as he launches a moon shot.
The Cardinals actually pulled to within two runs, thanks to an eighth inning meltdown by Brewers reliever, Chad Fox. Sadly, the hopes of a ninth inning miracle would quickly fade. Juan Acevado would retire the first two Brewers to start the ninth inning, but a pair of two out walks would prove disastrous when Sean Berry launches a three run homer to break the game open. Those three runs turned out to be significant because the Cardinals managed to score three runs themselves in the bottom of the ninth. Instead of a thrilling 8-7 comeback win, the Cardinals fall to the Brewers, 10-8.
After just six starts, injuries would end Osborne’s season, and Cardinals career. Garrett Stephenson would replace him in the rotation. Osborne would resurface for a few appearances in 2002 with the Cubs, and finally in 2004 with the Yankees.
Darryl Kile (2000-2001) 1-1
Tony La Russa and the Cardinals fortunes improved significantly in 2000. After a few years of struggling, a new pitcher came into St. Louis to terrorize National League hitters. Darryl Kile had been a good pitcher for Houston, and then signed a monster free agent deal with the Colorado Rockies. Somewhere in Denver, Kyle learned how to master the curveball, and it had become one of the best in the game. That was largely lost thanks to the thin air at Coors Field, but in the muggy St. Louis summers, it turned into solid gold. Kile would go on to win 20 games in 2000 for the only time in his career. That started with with a brilliant 6 inning performance in the 2000 opener against the Chicago Cubs.
There were many new faces on the Cardinals 2000 roster, and some of them made a big impression in this game. Shawon Dunston and Craig Pauquette would each homer in their Cardinals debut. Eric Davis would also add a homer. Newcomer Fernando Vina would go 3-5, including a triple in his first at-bat. Perhaps the most important thing about the 2000 opener is the debut of new center fielder, Jim Edmonds.
Things would not be so kind for Kile in 2001. He would again draw opening day duties, but it would be back in Denver, where the thin air messes with his curveball. And it didn’t fool many Rockies batters in his five innings of work. He would face left-hander, Mike Hampton, who retired from Major League Baseball earlier this week. Hampton had followed Kile by signing a big free agent contract with the Rockies. And like Kile, he would see him numbers balloon at the higher elevation of Denver.
Hampton would pitch into the ninth inning, ironically giving way to former Cardinal Jose Jimenez, who was part of the Darryl Kile trade a year earlier. Hampton and Jimenez would combine to shut out the Cardinals, but don’t feel too badly. 93 wins later, the Cardinals would capture the NL Wildcard and battle the Arizona Diamondbacks for a full five games in the NL Divisional Series, falling just short of playing for the NL title.
The 2001 season opener has one more memorable moment. In the second inning, left fielder Albert Pujols takes his first major league at-bat.
The same two teams would meet a week later for the St. Louis home opener. Denny Neagle would get the start for the Rockies, Andy Benes for the Cardinals. Both pitchers were sharp. Each pitcher would surrender a two run homer, and little else in their six innings of work. The two homers ? Albert Pujols and future Cardinal Larry Walker.
In an eerie reprise of the 1997 season opener, this game would be decided by bases loaded walk. This time it would be in the Cardinals favor, as former Cardinal, Jose Jimenez walked Eli Marrero to give the Cardinals the win.
Matt Morris (2002-2004) 1-1 1 no decision
Matt Morris would get opening day duties to start the 2002 season. His opponent would would be Mike Hampton of the Colorado Rockies. This game got out of hand early as the Cardinals scored runs in all but two innings. Albert Pujols was a wrecking crew at the top of the order with a pair of doubles and three RBIs, but it was the bottom of the batting order (Mike DeFelice, Edgar Renteria and Tino Martinez) that did most of the damage. Steve Kline and Jason Isringhausen would close out the game, preserving the win for Matt Morris. Mike Hampton would take the loss.
With the sudden passing of Darryl Kile in 2002, there was little question who would be on the mound when the Milwaukee Brewers game to town to start the 2003 season. Matt Morris would get the start for the Cardinals, Ben Sheets for the Brewers. It would be a back and forth battle until the bottom of the 8th inning when the Cardinals would explode for 6 runs. The big blow was a three run homer off the bat of Scott Rolen, who had been obtained in a mid-season deal in 2002.
The bullpen was shaky in the last two innings, but Russ Springer would earn the win and Steve Kline would pick up the save.
Ben Sheets and Matt Morris would again hook up in the 2004 opener. Neither pitcher was particular effective. Sheets would be gone in the fourth inning. Morris would pitch six innings, but give up seven runs, thanks to some iffy defense. The story would be the Brewers bullpen who keep the Cardinals at bay for nearly five innings. Matt Morris would take the loss and Dave Burba would pick up the win in relief.
Chris Carpenter (2005-2007, 2010) 3-1
Two of the best right-handers in the National League would meet in the 2005 season opener in Houston. Chris Carpenter would take the mount for the Cardinals and Roy Oswalt for the Astros. Home runs were the play of the day as Jim Edmonds, Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders each went deep. With Chris Carpenter only allowing a single run in seven innings or work., the game was over long before the game was turned over the to bullpen.
Mark Mulder would earn the home opener three days later against Cory Lidle and the Philadelphia Phillies. Mulder would struggle early, giving the Phillies a 5-1 lead before turning the game over to the bullpen. Fortunately for the Cardinals, they would start mounting a comeback in Lidle’s last inning of work. That comeback would be complete as Ryan Madsen would walk the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth. That gave no margin for error for incoming reliever Aron Fultz, who walked both Larry Walker and Albert Pujols, forcing in the tying and go-ahead runs.
There would be little relaxation though as Jason Isringhausen closed out the ninth inning wth troubles of his own. He managed to escape without allowing a run – we’re still not sure how he did that. Alberto (not Anthony) Reyes would earn the win in relief.
Carpenter and Mulder would again share opening day duties in the 2006 World Championship season. Carpenter would beat the Phillies in Philadelphia in a laugher. Mulder would pitch 8 strong innings in the home opener against the Milwaukee Brewers.
Chris Carpenter would again throw out the first pitch in 2007. His opponent would be Tom Glavine and the New York Mets. A bad pitch to Carlos Beltran in the third inning, and a pair of seeing-eye singles in the fourth were the difference as Carpenter would be tagged for 5 of the 6 Mets runs. Glavine was strong in six innins, and the Mets bullpen kept the Cards pinned. It would be the only opening day loss for Carpenter ….. so far.
After missing nearly two years to injury, Carpenter would follow up his amazing 2009 season with an opening day start against the Cincinnati Reds in 2010. The story of the game would be the long ball – specifically two off the bat of Albert Pujols plus one each from Yadier Molina and Colby Rasmus. The Cardinals would win this game easily, although the bullpen was a bit shaky. Chris Carpenter would earn the win, his third opening day victory. That would give him the most of any Cardinals pitcher in the last fifty years, including Hall of Famer, Bob Gibson.
Adam Wainwright would get the home opener against Wandy Rodriguez and the Houston Astros. As he would do most of 2010, Wainwright was masterful as he shut down the Astros for 8 innings. He would not allow a run and would strike out 7 along the way. Jason Motte would pitch a scoreless ninth inning in a non-save situation as the Cardinals shut out the Astros, 5-0. David Freese, Ryan Ludwick and Albert Pujols did the offensive damage for the Cardinal, mostly coming against Rodriquez.
Kyle Lohse (2008) 1 no decision
Poor weather conspired to take away Adam Wainwright’s first opening day start when the first game of 2008 was postponed. That assignment would fall on Kyle Lohse, who just two weeks earlier had signed a free agent contract with the Cardinals. His opponent would be former Cardinal, Kip Wells. This doesn’t quite create the mental imagery of “Clash of the Titans”, does it ?
Surprisingly, both pitchers would do well in their 2008 debuts. Lohse could only go five innings, due to missing nearly half of spring training, but left the game without giving up a run. On the other side of the diamond, Wells was cruising until a Chris Duncan walk followed by an Albert Pujols single in the sixth inning caused him an early shower. The only run of the game thus far was a Yadier Molina solo home run.
Kyle McClellan and Russ Springer would each follow Lohse with an inning of scoreless baseball. Unfortunately, there were still two innings to go, and one of those would prove problematic for the Cardinals. Ryan Franklin and Randy Flores had a tough time getting out of the eighth inning. Franklin started things off with a leadoff walk to Troy Tulowitzki. We know about leadoff walks, right ? A ground rule double off the bat of Todd Helton followed by a Troy Glaus error tied the game at 1. Franklin then walked Matt Holliday to load the bases – leading to another early shower. Randy Flores would strike out the first two men he faced, but coming in with the bases loaded in a tie game left no margin for error. That would hurt the Cardinals when Flored walked Jayson Nix, forcing in what would eventually be the winning run.
It was a disappointing loss to be sure, but at the same time, there was a lot to like in what we saw out of Kyle Lohse. He would be one to keep an eye on as 2008 unfolded.
Adam Wainwright (2009) 1 no decision
After getting denied his opening day start due to weather in 2008, Wainwright took the ball against the Pittsburgh Pirates to open 2009. Wainwright pitched well, but a high pitch count in the sixth inning led to a pair of walks and an early exit for the tall right hander. A rare bad outing by Trever Miller allowed the Pirates to tie the game and gave Wainwright a no-decision on the night. When Ryan Ludwick led off the bottom of the 8th inning with a go-ahead home run, the huge home town crowd erupted. When David Freese tacked on an insurance run later in the inning, the crowd noise grew to a cacophony of cheering. But we still remember how the game ended – the one day experiment with Jason Motte as the closer. Motte gave up 4 runs in his first save chance since winning the spot in spring training. He would take the loss on the night, and that would eventually lead to the Chinzilla (Ryan Franklin) taking over as the new Cardinals closer.
The Cardinals would soon recover from the opening day meltdown, and they would go on to win the NL Central. Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter turned in the best 1-2 pitching performances since John Tudor and Joaquin Andujar in 1985.
Chris Carpenter (2011) ?
In a few days we will know how Chris Carpenter fared in his 2011 debut. Until then, we can look back at the last 50 years and marvel at some of the names that took the baseball on the opening day. Bob Gibson, Curt Simmons, Joaquin Andujar, John Tudor, Darryl Kile, Matt Morris – but the best record belongs to the man who will start against the Padres on March 31. Chris Carpenter.