Last Monday, Clayton Kershaw had one heck of an Opening Day. He pitched a complete game shutout and hit an 8th inning home run, breaking a 0-0 tie and providing the only run of he needed. Kershaw recorded 7 strikeouts against just 4 hits and 0 walks. Kershaw's performance rates as one of the greatest Opening Days ever, up there with Walter Johnson's 15 shutout innings in 1926, Bob Feller's no hitter in 1940, or Camilo Pascual's record 15 strikeouts in 1960, or anything in more recent history. Speaking of recent history, today I'm choosing the very best Opening Day start for each season of the 2000s.
Here are my choices for the best from each Opening Day (if you click on a name, it'll take you to the box score for that game):
2013: Clayton Kershaw - DODGERS vs. Giants, 9 innings, 0 runs, 7 strikeouts, 4 hits, 0 walks
Kershaw threw a shutout against the defending World Series champions, needing just 94 pitches, making this the first Maddux of 2013 and only the second Opening Day Maddux of the pitch count era*. He also belted a home run, joining Bob Lemon (Indians, 1953) as the only players to homer and pitch a shutout in an Opening Day game.
*Complete pitch count data runs back only to 1988, so I can't know if there were others before then.
2012: Justin Verlander - TIGERS vs. Red Sox, 8 innings, 0 runs, 7 strikeouts, 2 hits, 1 walk
Verlander, the reigning AL MVP, picked up where he left off at the end of 2011, throwing 8 shutout innings against a good lineup. It's surprising he wasn't sent out for the 9th inning, as 105 pitches isn't that many by Verlander's standards.
2011: Jeremy Guthrie - ROYALS @ Rays, 8 innings, 0 runs, 6 strikeouts, 3 hits, 1 walk
The first two names on this list are probably the two best pitchers in baseball. Guthrie is probably not the next name on that list. He was fantastic on this day though. He was at just 94 pitches through 8 innings, but he didn't get the chance to finish it off himself.
2010: Tim Lincecum - GIANTS@ Astros, 7 innings, 0 runs, 7 strikeouts, 4 hits, 0 walks
Lincecum had won the previous two NL Cy Young winners and on this day he looked ready to win a third. The four hits were all singles and only two of his 21 outs were recorded by outfielders. Lincecum also put down two successful sacrifice bunts.
2009: Derek Lowe - BRAVES @ Phillies, 8 innings, 0 runs, 4 strikeouts, 2 hits, 0 walks
The Phillies went on to lead the National League in runs scored that year. This was a potent lineup and Lowe did better against them this day than anyone else all season. Having thrown just 98 pitches, Lowe could have gone back out for the 9th, but it wasn't to be.
2008: Carlos Zambrano - CUBS vs. Brewers, 6.2 innings, 0 runs, 5 strikeouts, 3 hits, 1 walk
I'm not sure why he was pulled, the bases were empty and he'd only thrown 85 pitches. In any event, this is the only entry on this list in which the pitcher didn't last at least seven innings. The best of a (relatively) poor crop of Opening Day performances.
2007: Felix Hernandez - MARINERS vs. Athletics, 8 innings, 0 runs, 12 strikeouts, 3 hits, 2 walks
Those twelve strikeouts are the most by any Opening Day starter in the 2000s (tied with Pedro Martinez in 2005). Felix was at 111 pitches through eight innings though (a number topped by just three Opening Day starters since then), so a complete game was not to be.
2006: Roy Oswalt - ASTROS vs. Marlins, 8 innings, 0 runs, 8 strikeouts, 5 hits, 1 walk
Oswalt was at just 91 pitches, why was he pulled?! Lousy closers, robbing starting pitchers of potential shutouts and the glory that comes with them. Oswalt had one of his best seasons in 2006, but never ended up getting a shutout.
2005: Mark Buehrle - WHITE SOX vs. Indians, 8 innings, 0 runs, 5 strikeouts, 2 hits, 1 walk
Buehrle allowed just three base runners and two of them were then erased by double plays, as Buehrle was getting ground balls all day. 103 pitches through eight innings... I know I sound like a broken record, but let a man finish what he's started!
2004: CC Sabathia - INDIANS @ Twins, 7 innings, 0 runs, 9 strikeouts, 2 hits, 4 walks
Sabathia ran his pitch count up with those strikeouts and walks and left after 7 innings. The Cleveland bullpen promptly blew the 4-0 lead and lost the game in extra innings, making Sabathia the only player on this list whose team didn't win that day.
2003: Hideo Nomo - DODGERS @ Diamondbacks, 9 innings, 0 runs, 7 strikeouts, 4 hits, 1 walk
This was the last Opening Day shutout before Kershaw's gem last week. Arizona's first hit was wiped out when the batter tried vainly to reach 3rd and was thrown out. Their second hit was wiped out on a failed stolen base attempt.
2002: Bartolo Colon - INDIANS @ Angels, 9 innings, 0 runs, 5 strikeouts, 5 hits, 2 walks
Colon needed just 98 pitches to blank the team that went on to win the World Series that year, making this the first Opening Day Maddux (and only one until Kershaw). I assume the two of them will get matching smoking jackets to commemorate their membership in that club.
2001: Mike Hampton - ROCKIES vs. Cardinals, 8.1 innings, 0 runs, 5 strikeouts, 5 hits, 3 walks
Hampton walked the last two batters he faced, losing the chance to finish the game. This was Hampton's first start for Colorado after signing (at the time) the biggest contract in baseball history. Who could know he'd go this deep into a game without allowing any runs just twice more in his career?
2000: Pedro Martinez - RED SOX @ Mariners, 7 innings, 0 runs, 11 strikeouts, 2 hits, 2 walks
If ever 7 shutout innings with 11 strikeouts could feel routine, it was this time, place, and pitcher. There's a reasonable argument that Pedro at this stage of his career was the best pitcher in history. If we're going only by a pitcher's prime, he's certainly got my vote.
If I were ranking the bunch, Kershaw would come out on top. His shutout is one of just four on Opening Day since 2000 (Nomo, Colon, and Randy Johnson, who pitched one in 2002, same year as Colon) and he allowed fewer base runners than any of those three other pitchers. I don't know when the last pitcher to throw a better Opening Day game was, but it's been a while.