On March 31, 2003, a 22-year-old CC Sabathia got the ball on Opening Day for the Cleveland Indians. He fared very well in his first opener, lasting seven innings and only allowing two runs. He did surrender eight hits and walk one, but he worked out of jams in a few innings. Heading into the bottom of the eighth Sabathia was the pitcher of record, having left with a 4-2 lead. David Riske ended that, though, allowing a game-tying home run to Marty Cordova.
The next year, CC was even better. Again he lasted seven innings, but this time he allowed no runs, surrendering just two hits, though he did walk four. The biggest difference was in his strikeout numbers. He set down nine of the 25 Twins he faced. Leaving the game with a 4-0 lead, it appeared Sabathia would get his first Opening Day win. Alas, it was not to be. Jose Jimenez, Scott Stewart, and Rafael Betancourt combined to allow four runs in the eighth, placing another ND on Sabathia’s record. The Indians lost again, this time with Chad Durbin surrendering a walk-off home run to Shannon Stewart.
In 2005 Sabathia was in line to make his third Opening Day start, but he opened the season on the DL. In 2006 he again got the nod, but this time suffered an injury during the start, straining his oblique and missing a month. His performance wasn’t very good that game, as he allowed three runs in just 2.1 innings against the White Sox. Still, we can chalk that one up to his oblique acting up. It was his first bad Opening Day start, after all, and at age 25 it appeared he had many, many more of them in his future.
Opening Day 2006 didn’t go too well for Sabathia, though it didn’t go poorly. He didn’t get hurt, which was an upgrade over 2005, but he also allowed three runs over six innings of work, allowing eight hits and walking run while surrendering two home runs. The Indians, for their part, rocked Jose Contreras early on, scoring five in the first, four in the second, and three in the third, staking Sabathia to a 11-2 lead after three. It would be his first Opening Day win, though not close to his best Opening Day performance. From there, though, it has been all downhill.
In his first start following his coronation as AL Cy Young, Sabathia bombed. For the third straight season the Indians opened the season against the White Sox, and for the third straight year it was something of a slugfest. Jim Thome took CC deep in the first inning for a two-run shot, and then did the same in his next at-bat, another two-run shot in the third. By this time the Indians had scored seven runs off Mark Buehrle, though, softening the blow. They maintained that 7-4 lead until the sixth, when Sabathia walked two before allowing an RBI single to A.J. Pierzynski. Jensen Lewis came in to clean up, but he and Rafael Perez combined to blow the lead the next inning. The Indians ended up winning the game, but CC got another no-decision to go along with his poor start.
Yankees fans had high hopes for Sabathia on Opening Day 2009, but again the big man flopped. He worked out of trouble in the first, but an Adam Jones started the scoring in the third. It all came undone in the fifth, when the Orioles went double-single-single-single-groundout/run-walk-walk. That final walk came with the bases loaded and one out. Sabathia then left the game, having surrendered six runs in just 4.1 IP. The damage might have been even worse had Brett Gardner not thrown out Melvin Mora trying to score on a sac fly.
On Sunday we saw yet another poor Opening Day start from Sabathia. He didn’t look great in the early goings, but he managed to limit the Red Sox damage to two runs through five innings. In the sixth, however, he was clearly gassed, and the Sox took advantage. He left the game having recorded one out in the inning and with the tying run on base. David Robertson promptly surrendered it, leaving Sabathia with an assured no-decision.
As he’s shown in years past, Sabathia is able to shake off poor season openers to post excellent seasons. Last year is a prime example. It took him almost all of April to get into his groove, but once he did we all forgot about his April woes. This isn’t to say that CC shouldn’t start Opening Day. I’m sure he’d have similar struggles in his first start no matter what turn in the rotation he took. It’s to say, though, that for the next year or five we shouldn’t have high expectations of Sabathia on Opening Day. We should, however, maintain our expectations for the season. The man is simply a beast.