Having grown up with Tom Seaver as a mortal lock to take the ball Opening Day after Opening Day, I always took it on faith that the other team was sending out to face us the closest thing they had to Tom Seaver…with the caveat that there’s only one Tom Seaver. Some opponents understood the gravity of the situation and gave us the respect we were due (even if that might not have worked to our advantage). Some opponents’ staffs lacked Seaverian gravitas but they dutifully offered up the best pitcher they could present. Some managers messed around with matchups or were messed around with by weather. Injuries coming out of Spring Training might have also played havoc with best laid plans.
When I think about Mets Opening Days, I think of Seaver. I think of Gooden. I think of Santana and every Mets starter from Roger Craig and Al Jackson to Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. Given time to think deeper on the subject lately, I found myself thinking about the other side of Opening Day. We know who’s pitched for us. Are we particularly conscious of who’s pitched for them?
I am now. Having spent a chunk of the copious baseball void during the runup to and aftermath of Fauxpening Day 2020 sorting through box scores and memories, I am now prepared to loosely rank each of the 48 pitchers who’ve started a season — or split season — against the Mets. On a couple of those occasions, the Mets were starting a season when the other team (the same team 35 years apart) wasn’t, but from our perspective, it was Opening Day, so the pitcher in that kind of case gets sucked into our exercise.
Rankings are rendered in good faith, though I can’t swear it won’t get a little arbitrary along the way.
1. Steve Carlton, Phillies: 1973-1975, 1982-1983
Nobody pitched more often against the Mets to start a season. Four times Carlton was Seaver’s direct counterpart (the other time he matched up against another former Cy Young winner, Randy Jones). Four times he lost. The one time his team won, he had already departed as the pitcher of record on the losing side. Nobody lost more to the Mets in general. This first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee, who went in two years after Tom, was the ideal Opening Day foe in that he personified the concept of ace, yet we inevitably overcame his impressive credentials. That Silent Steve was hard to like made defeating him all the more satisfying.
2. Don Drysdale, Dodgers: 1965
Like Seaver and Carlton, Drysdale was a Hall of Famer in the making. Unlike Carlton, he refused to serve as an episodic easy mark. Big D came to Big Shea and toyed with the Mets for a complete game four-hitter, indicative of how he (and almost everybody) handled the early Mets as a rule (24-6, 2.24 ERA).
3. Juan Marichal, Giants: 1968
The Mets were in the midst of conquering Marichal (Cooperstown Class of ’83) for their very first Opening Day win. It would’ve been Seaver’s, too, in his first such assignment, at Candlestick. The visitors led, 4-2, heading to the bottom of the ninth, with Juan already gone for a pinch-hitter after eight. All Seaver had to do was get by Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Jim Ray Hart. That’s a lot to ask of any ace. Just enough went wrong to force Gil Hodges to remove Tom with one out, one run in and one runner on. Danny Frisella came in and couldn’t save Seaver’s bacon. The Mets would lose, 5-4, with no-decisions allotted for each stellar starter. Marichal went on to win 26 games in 1968, the fifth of six seasons he’d rack up more than twenty wins. Somehow, the Dominican Dandy never received a Cy Young.
4. T#m Gl@v!ne, Braves: 2001
F*ck this guy, one is tempted to say before moving on, but we have to spend a moment with T#m as he is the only pitcher to have started for and against the Mets on Opening Day. You might have thought he was working against us in 2003, when he gave up five earned runs on eight hits and four walks over three-and-two-third frigid innings at Shea. His effort on behalf of his New York employer was stronger in the Openers of 2004, 2006 and 2007. But this is about that one time he matched up against the Mets to get our season going, April 3, 2001. It was Opening Night for us at Turner Field, but it was only the Home Opener for the Braves. Atlanta had been in Cincinnati a day earlier, Cincinnati being the kind of town that marches to its own Opening Day drum. By the time the Mets arrived at our favorite ancient burial ground, Gl@v!ne must’ve been tired, as we nicked him for two in the first. He and Al Leiter dueled to a 2-2 deadlock into the eighth. The future Manchurian Brave left with Benny Agbayani on. John Rocker would let him score on Robin Ventura’s ensuing two-run homer. It would be swell to report either Gl@v!ne or Rocker took the loss. That honor would go to Kerry Ligtenberg, after John Franco and Turk Wendell gave up the 4-2 lead but Robin got it back in the tenth.
5. Max Scherzer, Nationals: 2015, 2019
Scherzer, on track as we speak to join Seaver, Carlton, Drysdale, Marichal and Gl@v!ne in the Hall of Fame, has an uncanny knack for pitching like the Mets can’t touch him, though sometimes they do. The Mets eked out just enough offense to triumph over Mad Max in the pair of Openers when they faced him, including his first National League start five years ago. The Nats’ ace’s next start was to be last week, against us again. He and every other ace will just have to wait.
6. Curt Schilling, Phillies: 1998
Sociopathic in his post-career tendencies, but a helluva pitcher in his day, a segment of which arrived March 31, 1998. Schilling’s line versus the Mets in the most anticipated Opener of the post-Gooden, pre-Piazza era was as scintillating as the nearly 90-degree weather in Flushing: 8 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 9 SO and no runs. Bobby Jones wasn’t quite as impressive but essentially as effective. This was the scoreless tie that went to the bottom of the fourteenth before Alberto Castillo could push across the only run of the afternoon-turned-evening. One can only imagine what Schilling might’ve tweeted that night.
7. Rick Reuschel, Cubs: 1979-1981; Pirates: 1986
Something about this guy screamed “YEOMAN!” Reuschel didn’t overwhelm (a mere 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings pitched across nineteen seasons), but he did get outs. Against the Mets on four Opening Days in two different uniforms, however, Rick wasn’t terribly fortunate, as the Mets pinned four defeats on him. The first three outings were against Mets clubs nearly as bad as Reuschel’s Cubs. The fourth, when he’d transitioned to the Pirates as they were — to put it charitably — going through some changes, came against the 1986 Mets just as that was about to imply unbeatable.
8. Larry Jackson, Cardinals: 1962
The first pitcher to face the Mets set the tone for the year and years ahead. In terms of 1962, it was an 11-4 loss (complete game eight-hitter) dealt to the new team from the east. In terms of Jackson’s career, he’d emerge as a Met-killer so brutally efficient that Pat Burrell must look at his stats in envy. Larry versus the Mets through 1968: 21-2, 2.24 ERA. The first year Jackson didn’t pitch was the year the Mets won the World Series. Coincidence?
9. Edinson Volquez, Padres: 2013; Royals: 2016
We beat him and his Padres at home in 2013 three years before losing to him and Royals on the road in 2016. In between, there was the little matter of Volquez starting a pair of World Series games in which he was no-decisioned (like that helped). Volquez gets Top 10 treatment here for being the only pitcher besides Reuschel to be sent out to face the Mets on Opening Day for more than one team.
10./11./12. The Rest of the Steves: 1970, 1976, 1978, 2014
Steve Blass was the first opposition starter whose team lost to the Mets on Opening Day, getting no-decisioned as the Mets went on to win in eleven innings at Forbes Field as defending champs (thereby winning an Opener only after they won a World Series). The righty was a season away from closing out a Fall Classic of his own and a couple of campaigns more from completely losing the plate. Steve Rogers was one of those solid starters who never quite got fully appreciated outside Montreal. He acquitted himself fine in two Opening Day starts versus the Mets during that nine-year span when the Mets literally never lost on Opening Day. More notably in Quebec, he gave up the pennant-deciding home run to Rick Monday in 1981. Any chance to taunt Steven Strasburg that HAR-VEY’S BET-TER on Opening Day 2014 went by the wayside as our ace had already stepped aside for a year of Tommy John rehab. Strasburg struck out ten Mets at Citi Field but trailed, 4-3, when he was pinch-hit for in the seventh. The Mets would lose in ten.
13./14. The First-Timers: 1969, 1993
Roger Craig started the Mets’ very first game, in 1962. Twice the Mets have faced somebody else’s Craig. In 1969, it fell to veteran righty Mudcat Grant to carry the Expos’ unsullied banner into battle against none other than Tom Seaver. The former 21-game winner was knocked out in the second inning, but Montreal rallied for a legendary 11-10 win (legendary for how so few of the Mets’ next 161 games were anything like it). Twenty-four years later, the Original Rockies tumbled into Shea on the shoulders of David Nied. Whereas Grant, 33, was pitching in the 394th game of a career that stretched back to 1958, Nied was that rarest of species: a rookie Opening Day starter. Made sense that a new team might want to go with youth. Nied was the Rox’ first pick in the 1992 expansion draft, plucked from the Braves after six appearances for the NL champs. At the outset of 1993, the 24-year-old wasn’t quite a match for Doc Gooden. Whereas Mudcat would start or relieve 571 times in his career, Nied’s promise was curtailed by injury. The kid pitched in only 52 games and was through by 1996.
15. Josh Johnson, Marlins: 2010-11
Kind of the Steve Rogers of his truncated day in that he was really good and only intermittently noticed. Injuries got the best of Johnson, eventually, though not before he provided the teal opposition on consecutive Opening Days: a loss to Johan Santana at Citi Field, followed by a win over Mike Pelfrey at whatever the hell where the Marlins played was called in 2011.
16. Kerry Wood, Cubs: 2003
Through breath visible from muttering regarding the inauspicious Met debut of T#m Gl@v!ne, perhaps it was easy to overlook who was mowing down the Mets in the 15-2 defeat that got 2003 rolling immediately downhill. Wood pitched five innings, took his 6-2 lead to the presumably heated visiting clubhouse and enjoyed the remainder of what became the Cubs’ 15-2 Opening thrashing. Kerry’s greatest day came five years earlier, when he struck out twenty Astros, but the rest of his ’03 was pretty decent, too, seeing as how it culminated in a trip deep into the postseason, if not deep enough to suit North Side tastes. Despite injuries continually haunting him, Wood lasted until 2012.
17. Ernie Broglio, Cardinals: 1963
He could be known for the two-hit shutout at the Polo Grounds that suggested 1963 wasn’t gonna be a whole lot more fruitful for the Mets than 1962 had been. He could be known for having won 21 games in 1960 and 18 in ’63. He could be known for being trusted with the Opening Day assignment once more in ’64, edging Bob Gibson for the honor. Instead, Ernie Broglio is known not as a Cardinal stud, but the guy the Cubs wanted so badly that they traded outfielder Lou Brock to get him. Brock collected more than 3,000 hits, stole more than 900 bases and was voted into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Broglio…wasn’t.
18. Mario Soto, Reds: 1984
Good lord, this guy was intimidating. Soto’s seven-hit complete game took the fun out of the one time the Mets were the visitor to Riverfront Stadium to start the major league season back when that was a thing. To be fair, Mike Torrez (1.1 IP, 6 ER) didn’t make it a great day, either.
19. Mike Krukow, Cubs: 1981.2
Wore Met hitters on his watch chain, as Bob Murphy liked to say. Krukow went 22-7 against us between 1976 and 1989. He was a good choice to thwart our second-season ambitions on August 10, 1981, going six innings and allowing only a run on two hits at Wrigley on the one and only ReOpening Day in Mets history. The game went crazy in extras, so Krukow took an ND.
20. Dennis Martinez, Expos: 1988
El Presidente could veto the Mets’ hopes any day, but the only time the Mets opened their season in Montreal, it was their bats that proved unimpeachable. New York produced six home runs, the strongest of them from Darryl Strawberry, who launched one that was destined for the North Pole until the ring around the roof of the Big O got in the way. Martinez gave up three of the dingers, then got on with his career revival in splendid fashion. In 1991, he pitched a perfect game. In 1998, at age 44, he competed in the playoffs for the Braves.
21./22./23./24./25. Future Considerations: 1964, 1972, 1977, 2006, 2009
Give or take enmity for a real rival, (see No. 4), maybe take it easy on the next Opening Day starter you see face the Mets, because someday you may see that pitcher face somebody else on behalf of the Mets. Six times the Mets’ opposition was a pitcher who’d later pitch for the Mets. One was Gl@v!ne. The other five will have their names spelled traditionally.
• In 1964, the Phillies sent out not Jim Bunning or Chris Short, but Dennis Bennett. Before 1964 was over, Gene Mauch mostly sent out Bunning and Short versus all comers, speaking of collapses, but when the season was new, Mauch put his faith in Bennett and went unrewarded; the lefty lasted fewer than five (the Mets lost, anyway). Bennett’s claim to Met fame came in his first start for New York in 1967, though the fame was rather incidental — he was the starting pitcher the afternoon The Odd Couple filmed its triple play scene at Shea.
• Dock Ellis was hardly the focus of the sad Opening Day at Shea in 1972 when the Mets, the Pirates and the baseball world mourned the passing of Gil Hodges. Most of the rest of his career, Dock was tough to take one’s eyes off of, whether he was intentionally plunking three Reds to begin a game; throwing a no-hitter under the influence of LSD; or not minding who saw him wearing curlers in his hair. By the time the Mets picked him up, in 1979, his legend was secure, though his right arm had little left.
• The workmanlike Ray Burris started and lost versus Tom Seaver on Opening Day 1977, a game that had to be played in broad daylight given that it was taking place at premodern Wrigley Field. Sun or something like it would have come in handy when Ray met the Mets at Shea three-plus months later. Seaver was gone and so was all semblance of light. This was July 13, the night of the New York City blackout. Burris was on the mound for the Cubs, Lenny Randle was at the plate for the Mets and, come the sixth, nobody could see anything. When the action of July 13 was unsuspended on September 16, Burris was “still” on the mound for Chicago. He wound up winning a complete game that took two months to finish. Ray would do a decent job as a Met in 1979 and 1980, with Con Edison not getting in the way whatsoever.
• Livàn Hernandez knew a good milestone when he saw it. First Marlin to win an NLCS MVP award. First Marlin to win a World Series MVP award, too. First National to throw a pitch that counted. First National to start on Opening Day two years in a row, which takes us to his presence at Shea Stadium on April 3, 2006. He’d wind up losing the first game telecast on SNY, but would come back to Queens under friendlier circumstances in 2009 — throwing the first Met pitch (albeit one that didn’t count) in Citi Field’s inaugural major league exhibition versus the Red Sox. He’d also throw a passel of pitches during the season ahead, including 127 on May 26 for the first home team complete game victory in the new ballpark.
• For a couple of seasons, Aaron Harang was a force for the Reds, winning sixteen games apiece in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, he was basically the opposite, losing seventeen, with only six wins and an earned run average pushing five (lest you think he was modeling hard luck for teenager Jacob deGrom). Nevertheless, Dusty Baker judged him the best option to start the 2009 season with the Mets in town. Harang wasn’t terrible in defeat, which, after a pitcher has gone 6-17, is high praise. Four years later, Aaron was what you’d call available, which was good enough for the injury-riddled 2013 Mets. Bereft of starting pitching down what passed for the stretch, Terry Collins asked Aaron to make four September starts. He was, yet again, not terrible.
26. Paul Wilson, Reds: 2005
Nine years had passed since Wilson’s debut as one-third of star-crossed Generation K. It felt like nine decades for the only former Met to start against the Mets on Opening Day. Most eyes back in New York were on Pedro Martinez, which was usually how it went in 2005, but Wilson filed away a quality start for homestanding Cincy: six innings, three earned runs. The second “P” in “IPP” (Izzy, Pulse & Paul, in case you weren’t haunting AOL Met boards c. 1995) would be no-decisioned, thanks to Braden Looper’s timely relief work. Wilson’s arm miseries essentially ended his career eight starts later. His last time on a major league mound came at Shea on May 16. He gave up six earned runs in five-and-a-third innings.
27. Doug Drabek, Pirates: 1990
Starters on Mets Opening Day who have used the first game of the year to initiate a successful Cy Young campaign include Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden, Jacob deGrom, Steve Carlton and this guy. This guy started against the Mets, however, on Opening Day at Shea, an event delayed by the lockout that kiboshed much of Spring Training. Drabek was ready for action on April 9, even if Gooden may not have been. The Bucs crushed the Mets, 12-3. Doug was on his way to the 22-6 mark that would earn him pitching hardware and help the Pirates to the first of three consecutive NL East titles, dammit.
28. Chris Carpenter, Cardinals: 2007
The pins in the Fredbird voodoo doll were meant metaphorically on Opening Night. Sure, we wanted to take a little one-season-removed revenge on St. Louis in St. Louis as they commemorated the 2006 world championship that was supposed to be ours, and yeah, we didn’t mind scoring five runs off Carpenter over six innings en route to a 6-1 Sunday Night Baseball victory that was intended to serve notice that 2007 was totally gonna be our year. But then Carpenter felt something in his right elbow and was out for the rest of ’07 for Tommy John surgery and rehab. Sorry about that, Chris. We wanted to hurt you, not, you know, hurt you.
29. Terry Mulholland, Phillies: 1991
You see the name “Terry Mulholland,” and maybe you think of him tossing his glove with the ball in it to first base to retire Keith Hernandez in 1986, the smart play for a pitcher who couldn’t remove the Rawlings from the webbing fast enough. Maybe you think of the first pitch Mulholland threw on June 30, 2000, to Mike Piazza, a delivery Mike sent sizzling above the left field fence to cap a ten-run inning for the ages (throwing his glove might have worked better). Perhaps you think of a journeyman’s journeyman who more or less replicated Steve Miller’s travelogue from “Rock’n Me,” as he plied his craft at various times in Phoenix, Arizona; all the way to Tacoma’s sister city of Seattle; Philadelphia; Atlanta; L.A. Do you think of Terry Mulholland as an Opening Day starter? Well, think of him as Doc Gooden’s opposite number on Opening Day 1991. He lost, 2-1, but kept on rock’n batters, baby, until 2006.
30. Mike Morgan, Cubs: 1994
In the realm of “I’ve been everywhere, man,” Mike Morgan had already been an A, a Yankee, a Blue Jay, a Mariner, an Oriole and a Dodger when he joined the Cubs in 1992. The righty who got rolling in Oakland at age 18, in 1978, got the ball to start 1994 at Wrigley. It didn’t go well for the veteran, who gave up six runs in four innings to the Mets. It also went largely unnoticed, as Tuffy Rhodes cranked three home runs off Doc Gooden in what became an uproarious 10-6 Mets win. Morgan didn’t have much of a season in ’94, going 2-10 before the strike shut things down, but he got back to having an impressive-as-hell career, adding five teams to his résumé and keeping at it into the twenty-first century.
31./32. One-Hit Wonders: 1996, 2017
On July 3, 1994, Andy Benes absolutely put the Mets away in San Diego, shutting them out on one hit and one walk, striking out thirteen in the process. On June 19, 2016, Julio Teheran did basically the same thing, tossing a one-hitter of his own at Citi Field, with seven strikeouts and zero walks. With outings like those rattling around our collective subconscious, who wants to start a season facing these spiritual descendants of Larry Jackson? On Opening Day in 1996, the Mets drew Benes and his new team, the Cards. Andy wasn’t as stifling as he’d been two seasons earlier, but he pitched well enough to win and, in fact, left after six with a lead. That wound up the day Rey Ordoñez threw Royce Clayton out at home with a fling from his knees, so nobody much remembers Benes’s role. Tackling Teheran, a modern-day Met-killer in the mid-2010s, was the unwanted assignment on Opening Day 2017. Julio looked a lot like the king of Corona in Flushing that afternoon: six innings, four hits, no runs, essentially matching Noah Syndergaard’s performance. Fortunately for the Mets, he had thrown 96 pitches, which meant a seventh-inning trip to the Atlanta pen, where all hell helpfully broke loose in the Mets’ favor. Lesson? Not every nightmare comes true on Opening Day.
33. Joaquin Andujar, Cardinals: 1985
Andujar’s status as Cardinal ace and tough customer would undergo some changes before 1985 was out. John Tudor would assert himself in the St. Louis pecking order and Joaquin would lose his composure along with the final game of the World Series and get himself traded to Oakland by December. But on Opening Day, Andujar was coming off a twenty-win season and slotted into the April 9 narrative as a worthy foe to Dwight Gooden in Dr. K’s first Opening Day start and, not incidentally, Gary Carter’s Mets debut. The Cardinal righty would go on to win 21 games in 1985. This wouldn’t be one of them. The Mets scored five off the veteran on a chilly Shea afternoon that would take ten innings (and Carter) to settle.
34. Alex Fernandez, Marlins: 1999
Heartwarming comeback stories lose a little of their capacity to inspire when you’re on the wrong end of one. On Opening Day 1999, the Mets watched Alex Fernandez return from a year lost to the rotator cuff injury that had kept him out of the 1997 World Series. The Miami native thrilled his hometown supporters with five innings of one-run ball that lifted Florida to a 6-2 win over former Fish Al Leiter. The ensuing season turned out to be the last full campaign for the righthander. He’d have to step aside for another surgery in the middle of 2000 and announce his retirement in 2001.
35. Bill Swift, Rockies: 1995
Throwing the first pitch in the history of Coors Field seems about as vital a task as collecting paid admissions at Woodstock. You’re going to be rather superfluous to the proceedings about to follow. In August of 1969, deluged by peace & music pilgrims, Woodstock quickly became a free concert, and on April 26, 1995, the Colorado Rockies’ new ballpark hosted a run-scoring free-for-all amid high elevation and higher-octane offense. Swift, two years removed from winning twenty-one games as a San Francisco Giant, held the fort admirably at first, but after six innings, his stats served as precedent for waves of pitchers who would go through the Coors ringer: five runs, ten hits, yet not necessarily in line for a loss. Despite surrendering a grand slam to Todd Hundley a half-inning before being pinch-hit for, Swift figured as the pitcher on the winning side. That wouldn’t last, though the Mets didn’t ultimately benefit. Rockies won in fourteen, 11-9.
36. Bob Veale, Pirates: 1967
When one considered the Pittsburgh Pirates over a span of a couple of decades, one thought of Clemente, then Stargell, then Parker. They were all MVPs for a franchise eventually known as the Lumber Company. The pitching might have gotten a little lost in the shuffle where the Allegheny and Monongahela meet to form the mighty Ohio. Bob Veale, however, you could make out just fine. In the middle of the 1960s, Veale could be counted on to land among the National League’s strikeout leaders. The hard-throwing lefty finished first in the category in 1964, second to Sandy Koufax in 1965 and third in 1966. The last two of those years he was an All-Star. No wonder he was Harry Walker’s choice to start Opening Day 1967 at Shea Stadium. The wonder in retrospect is why Wes Westrum didn’t counter with a budding strikeout artist of his own, someone who would lead the senior circuit in K’s five times. To be fair to Westrum, that pitcher, 22-year-old Tom Seaver, hadn’t yet thrown a single pitch in the major leagues. Instead of leaning on his promising rookie, the Mets’ manager opted for veteran experience, going with ex-Buc Don Cardwell versus Veale. Veale prevailed, giving Walker eight innings and the Pirates a 5-3 victory. (Seaver would pitch the second game of the season for the only time in his Mets career.)
37. Russ Ortiz, Braves: 2004
Greg Maddux was a Cub. T#m Gl@v!ne was a Met. John Smoltz was a closer. All the usual suspects the mind’s eye would conjure to start a Braves season were unavailable on April 6, 2004, but in real time, it made all the sense in Georgia for Bobby Cox to call on Russ Ortiz. The righty wasn’t exactly without credentials. He’d been not only a division champion Brave in 2003, he’d been their leading winner, racking up twenty-one victories. Russ was Atlanta’s Game One starter versus the Cubs in the NLDS and won Game Four to extend the set to a deciding fifth game (where, per usual in this century, they’d lose). Ortiz’s postseason experience wasn’t limited to the Braves. If anybody associates anything with Russ Ortiz, it’s his leaving the mound in the seventh inning of Game Six of the 2002 World Series with a 5-0 lead over the Angels, and Giants manager Dusty Baker theatrically handing him the ball as a souvenir of what is about to be the clinching contest of San Francisco’s first-ever world championship. The Angels smashed that tableau in a hurry, with the righty an innocent clubhouse bystander. By the time Ortiz took the Turner Field mound to face the Mets to begin 2004, Russ had experienced quite a career. By the time Ortiz had thrown one pitch in ’04, he trailed, 1-0, as Kaz Matsui belted it out of sight. Ortiz would exit Opening Night in the third inning with the bases loaded and behind by three runs. The Braves would not rally to his defense in the Mets’ 7-2 win.
38. Joe Magrane, Cardinals: 1989
In 1988, the year Jacob deGrom was born, a righthanded pitcher led the National League in earned run average despite a deceptively unimpressive won-lost record. Talk about foreshadowing. Joe Magrane went 5-9 in ’88, but his 2.18 ERA outpointed everybody, including Orel Hershiser, who finished the year on a 59-inning scoreless streak. Maybe Magrane’s luck would change in 1989. The Cardinals went about finding out by sending him to the mound at Shea to start Opening Day. With seven runs allowed in fewer than four innings, Joe couldn’t blame bad luck for the loss he’d take. At least it didn’t foreshadow his season. Magrane would go 18-9 in ’89 and fashion another ERA under three.
39. Jose DeLeon, Cardinals: 1992
The first time the Mets faced Jose DeLeon, in the nightcap of a Banner Day doubleheader in 1983, the Pirates rookie nearly no-hit them. He got to the bottom of the ninth with one out before Hubie Brooks singled. As Mike Torrez had been keeping the Buccos off the board at Shea himself — he tallied eleven scoreless frames — DeLeon’s effort went for naught. The Mets would win memorably in twelve, scoring the only run of the game when Mookie Wilson hustled home on from second on a would-be double play grounder. Jose certainly projected as a comer, but the road ahead proved bumpy. In 1985, he lost nineteen games. In 1990, he lost another nineteen games. Yet on Opening Night 1992 at Busch Stadium, he was Joe Torre’s choice to begin the season. You can’t say baseball doesn’t promote second acts. DeLeon did well against the Mets: 7 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 6 SO, 1 ER. Alas, it was another superb performance that fell away in the face of extra-inning Met magic, with Bobby Bonilla homering off Lee Smith in the tenth and DeLeon taking another no-decision.
40. Carl Morton, Expos: 1971
At a glance, the 1970 Expos didn’t have much going for them. Sure, there was Rusty Staub (30 HR, 94 RBI), but the second-year club wound up in last place, albeit with “only” 89 losses, versus the 110 that weighed them down in ’69. But if you look closer, you’ll find a remarkable rookie season from Carl Morton, an 18-game winner for a cellar dweller. That’s the kind of promise a young team yearns to build on. That’s the kind of pitcher you hand the ball to Opening Day the next year to show his stuff against the best in the business. Morton was indeed the Expos’ starter to start ’71, and he definitely had an aspirational figure to match up against at Shea in Tom Seaver. The only thing he didn’t have was cooperative weather (though playing home games at Parc Jarry should have prepared him for inclement conditions). In rain and wind that shortened the game to five innings, Morton lost to Seaver, 4-2. Carl would move on to the Braves later in the 1970s and put up some good numbers. Tragically, he died of a heart attack in 1983 at the age of 39.
41. Tommy Hanson, Braves: 2012
Entering his rookie season of 2009, Tommy Hanson was Baseball America’s No. 4 prospect and listed in the Top 20 by Baseball Prospectus. An 11-4 freshman campaign, featuring an ERA of 2.89, indicated promise being fulfilled. When Opening Day 2012 rolled around at Citi Field, it was Hanson who was called on by the Braves to duel Johan Santana. For five innings, it was an even exchange of zeroes. In the sixth, the Mets got to Tommy on a walk and two singles, the second of them, from David Wright, producing the only run of the game. Hanson was removed trailing, 1-0, the score by which he’d take the loss. Still, 2012 looked all right on paper, with Hanson going 13-10. He’d be traded to the Angels in the offseason, pitch one more season in the majors and then bounce around the minors for three organizations, trying to come back from a shoulder injury. On November 9, 2015, Hanson, 29, died from what were deemed “delayed complications of cocaine and alcohol toxicity”.
42. Jon Lieber, Cubs: 2000
Many pitchers might say they’d travel halfway around the world for a W. Jon Lieber became the first to actually do it. On March 29, 2000, Lieber opposed Mike Hampton in Major League Baseball’s initial stab at starting a season in Japan. It worked out better for Lieber’s Cubs than it did Hampton and the Mets. While Mike couldn’t quite find his footing on the Tokyo Dome mound, Lieber persisted and prevailed, allowing just one run on five hits in seven early-morning innings (prime time in Japan). A year later, Lieber would be a twenty-game winner without ever having to leave North America.
43. Carlos Martinez, Cardinals: 2018
A two-time All-Star before he turned 26, Carlos Martinez earned the honor of opening the 2018 season at Citi Field. The honor, it turned out, was all Mets. New York accepted six walks from Carlos, added four hits and took an insurmountable lead before the fifth inning was over. By then, the righthander was done for the day. By August, in deference to shoulder problems, he was in the Cardinal bullpen, where he has remained ever since.
44. Joey Hamilton, Padres: 1997
Joey Hamilton, in the midst of his perfectly serviceable ten-year career (74-73, 4.44 ERA), did not get off to a good start in 1997, giving up four runs on eight hits and six walks to the Mets in six innings. Something would have had to have gone terribly wrong for the Mets to have not won their only Opening Day game to date in San Diego. Something did. It was called the bottom of the sixth and it yielded eleven runs off four Mets pitchers. By that point, Hamilton didn’t have to be good, he just had to be there.
45. Denny Lemaster, Braves: 1966
Lemaster was not the Braves’ Opening Day starter in 1966. He didn’t start until the fourth game of his team’s season, which marked the first road game in the history of the newly transplanted Atlantans. The Braves’ opponents, the Mets, were a different story. They were a rainy story in Cincinnati, where they were slated as the visitors for the traditional Crosley Field opener on Monday, April 11. But in poured in southern Ohio, and the cats and dogs just kept coming down in buckets as the week went on. The Mets couldn’t play at all until their regularly scheduled Home Opener on Friday, April 15, which is the latest a Mets season has ever started, save for years affected by strikes or, pending further developments, pandemics. Either way, Lemaster, a righty who had won seventeen games for the then-Milwaukee Braves in 1964, left the Mets high and dry, giving up only one earned run in eight-and-a-third innings for the 3-2 victory.
46./47. What the Buc?: 1987, 2002
Let’s be clear: a major league career, let alone one that lasts, is nothing to dismiss lightly. Those of us who watch baseball would, at least in theory, give our left arms to play baseball at the highest level in the world. That disclaimer out of the way, how on earth did the Pittsburgh Pirates on two Opening Days fifteen years apart deign to start seasons behind Bob Patterson and Ron Villone? Other than not having loads of viable alternatives and counting on their respective left arms to neutralize Mets clubs that always seemed susceptible to southpaws, it’s hard to frame these guys as “Opening Day” starters in the mold of Seaver, Carlton or, for that matter, Joey Hamilton. Patterson, a rookie with a couple of cups of coffee behind him as of Opening Day 1987, was thrown into intimidating surroundings. The Mets were raising their 1986 World Champions flag and handing out their hard-won World Series rings. Bob’s first inning was rough, culminating in Darryl Strawberry’s three-run homer (lefty vs. lefty matchup notwithstanding). Patterson did OK overall, though, lasting six and giving up no more runs in what became a 3-2 Pirate loss. Villone’s moment in the Shea sun, on Opening Day 2002, wasn’t quite as fraught with symbolism, but the Mets were trotting out Roberto Alomar and Mo Vaughn for the first time, which was supposed to be a great thing. Ron, a New Jersey native whose 5.89 ERA the year before left him unsigned until mid-February, gave up four runs over five innings and absorbed the 6-2 defeat. Villone’s career spanned 1995 through 2009. Patterson first pitched in 1985 and continued pitching until 1998. Both were Opening Day starters in games countless Mets fans couldn’t wait to see. How many people can say that?
48. Mark Hendrickson, Marlins: 2008
Opening Day 2008: Johan Santana debuting to universal anticipation for the Mets, and opposing him for the Florida Marlins…Mark Hendrickson? My reaction at the time was, “HUH?” Hendrickson had been in the majors since 2002, had won in double-digits for dreadful Tampa Bay clubs in 2004 and 2005, and pitched against the Mets for the Dodgers the summer before, yet I was still in a state of “HUH?” when I saw Mark Hendrickson was the opposition for us and Johan a dozen years ago. Twelve years later, with baseball and everything else except a virus at a standstill, I’m grateful SNY is showing edited versions of old Opening Days on what was supposed to be the new Opening Day. I greet the 2008 Opener from Dolphins Stadium with fresh enthusiasm (the first recorded instance of any Mets fan evincing an iota of nostalgia for the ol’ Soilmaster Sack). There are Gary, Keith and Ron looking surprisingly younger. There’s Johan, carrying with him dreams of converting last September’s dismay into this season’s redemption. There, in various stages of their prime, are Reyes and Wright, Beltran and Delgado, even a little hope invested in Schneider and Church. And on the mound, for the Marlins…Mark Hendrickson. And despite having lived this Opening Day once before quite happily (we did win it, after all), my reaction at this time, in 2020, is, “HUH?” I didn’t really grasp who Mark Hendrickson was the first time and I apparently failed to commit him to memory thereafter. It’s reassuring in troubling times to know some things never change. (Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve spent the past decade vaguely certain Jeremy Hellickson was Mark Hendrickson, or that perhaps both were close relatives of Todd Hollandsworth.)