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Ranking the opening day pitching matchups

By Mike Axisa | Baseball Writer

Matt Cain (left) and Clayton Kershaw (right) will face each other for just the fourth time on Monday. (USATSI)

In the grand scheme of things, opening day is no more important than any other regular-season game. For a starting pitcher, though, getting the ball in that first game is an honor. It means your club has dubbed you the staff ace and expects you to set the tone for the rest of the season.

Since 1916, Tom Seaver leads all pitchers with 16 career opening day starts. Steve Carlton, Randy Johnson and Jack Morris are all tied for second at 14 apiece. Roy Halladay leads all active pitchers with 10 career opening day starts, but in a few days another pitcher will join the double-digit club.

Since every team throws its ace on opening day, that first game of the season always results in some primo pitching matchups. It's only natural that we now take those 15 matchups and rank them from best to worst. Here's our list:

  1. Matt Cain, Giants vs. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: Easy call for the top spot. Cain is making his first career opening day start, believe it or not, while Kershaw's career performance against the rival Giants is just silly (1.37 ERA in 16 starts).
  2. Jered Weaver, Angels vs. Johnny Cueto, Reds: The token opening day interleague game features two pitchers who have combined for a 2.58 ERA in nearly 800 innings over the last two seasons.
  3. James Shields, Royals vs. Chris Sale, White Sox: Sale emerged as a Cy Young award contender last season while Shields continues to plug along as one of baseball's premier workhorses. He'll just be wearing a new uniform now.
  4. Cole Hamels, Phillies vs. Tim Hudson, Braves: Hudson will be making his sixth career opening day start, but Hamels will be making his first. These two have combined to throw nearly 1,300 innings since 2010.
  5. Adam Wainwright, Cardinals vs. Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks: Kennedy's ERA against the Cardinals (8.59 in four starts) is the highest among any team that he has faced at least twice. His third consecutive opening day start would be a good time to reverse that trend.
  6. Jon Lester, Red Sox vs. CC Sabathia, Yankees: This matchup would rate higher in most years, but Lester didn't pitch all that well last season (90 ERA+) and Sabathia is coming off offseason elbow surgery. Sabathia will be making his 10th career opening day start, tying Halladay for the most among active pitchers.
  7. Justin Masterson, Indans vs. R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays: Masterson struggled (79 ERA+) last year after having a career year in 2011 (122 ERA+). Dickey hopes to avoid a similar stumble as the reigning Cy Young winner.
  8. Felix Hernandez, Mariners vs. Brett Anderson, Athletics: I really wanted to put this pairing higher because I love Anderson, but he just can't stay on the field. Felix is the man, but you knew that already.
  9. Justin Verlander, Tigers vs. Vance Worley, Twins: Verlander is the best pitcher in the world while Worley is Minnesota's prized offseason pickup. No disrespect to Worley, but one of those things is not like the other.
  10. David Price, Rays vs. Jason Hammel, Orioles: Hammel pitched like an ace last year (123 ERA+), at least when he wasn't battling a knee injury. Price is the reigning Cy Young award winner and will be making his second career opening day start.
  11. Ricky Nolasco, Marlins vs. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals: In this matchup of two-time opening day starters, Nolasco will be making what figures to be one of his final starts as a Marlin. He's the team's highest-paid player ($11.5 million), and that automatically makes him a trade candidate.
  12. Jeff Samardzija, Cubs vs. A.J. Burnett, Pirates: Of all the opening day matchups, this one probably has the most "wow" potential. I'm talking both starters with 15+ strikeouts, that kind of stuff.
  13. Edinson Volquez, Padres vs. Jon Niese, Mets: Niese is subbing for fellow southpaw Johan Santana, who is expected to miss the season due to shoulder surgery. Volquez is making his third career opening day start, which is more than I realized.
  14. Matt Harrison, Rangers vs. Bud Norris, Astros: This matchup of first-time opening day starters will kick off the season on Sunday night.
  15. Jhoulys Chacin, Rockies vs. Yovani Gallardo, Brewers: Gallardo is really good and perhaps a little underrated, but Chacin is ... not.
 
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