While Stephen Strasburg of the Nationals and Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers had the two highest-profile victories on Opening Day, two lesser-known pitchers from Chicago, Chris Sale of the White Sox and Jeff Samardzija of the Cubs, were nearly as good, leading their teams to the city's first Opening Day sweep since 2009.
In Chicago, Sale threw 72Ú3 shutout innings, scattering seven hits and one walk and striking out seven in a 1-0 victory over the Royals. In Pittsburgh, Samardzija fired eight scoreless innings, allowing two hits and one walk and striking out nine in a 3-1 win over the Pirates.
Both notched their 22nd major league victories Monday and averaged at least a strikeout an inning last season, but their careers have not been smooth. Two years ago, both were pegged as relief pitchers.
In 2011, the 6-foot-6, 180-pound Sale was a highly effective setup man, pitching to a 1.11 WHIP with eight saves in 58 appearances. Last year the White Sox gave Sale a shot as a starter, and he went to the All-Star Game, finishing 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA. This year there's no identity questions about the 24-year-old. The left-hander is the ace of the White Sox staff.
It has taken Samardzija, 28, longer to find his way. He was a star wide receiver at Notre Dame and considered an NFL career before deciding to pursue baseball exclusively. For three seasons, the 6-5, 225-pound right-hander bounced between the majors and minors. In 2011, he went 8-4 with a 2.97 ERA exclusively as a relief pitcher, but with 50 walks in 88 innings, the Cubs never knew what to expect from one appearance to the next.
Last year Chicago moved Samardzija to the rotation, and he was stellar for the first two months before hitting a wall in June, unaccustomed to the increased workload. On Monday, Samardzija flashed the same stuff he did in his first start of 2012, when he fired 82Ú3 innings of four-hit ball in a victory over the Nationals.
If Samardzija is indeed ready for the long haul and Sale continues his detour-free progression, it will be a fun year in Chicago tracking a pair of potential Cy Young candidates. On Monday, they showed they have the stuff, even if their organizations believed they were better suited to the bullpen as recently as two years ago.
- Kevin Dunleavy