Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
Padres manager Bud Black sat in the dugout three hours prior to the start of the game, reflecting on opening day while watching his pitchers take batting practice. When Black was a pitcher, he pitched three opening days in his career. Edinson Volquez only has one under his belt. For some of the Padres players this season, it would be their first.
"I don't know whether jitters is the right word, but excited, anxious, looking forward to it. There's just a different feeling, I think in all of us. I felt that way as a player and as a coach. There's no other day like this one," Black said.
Red, white, and blue bunting adorned the facades in the stands, the field was immaculately trimmed, and the players were on the field going through their pregame warm-up routine. Intensity seemed to be heightened. Media littered the field like so many hot dog wrappers in a swirling wind. Black concluded, "The first day when it counts, all eyes are on our sport."
Shortly afterward, Black grabbed his glove and took the field to throw batting practice as he always does when the Padres are up against a left-handed pitcher. The media people scattered, and the ballpark staff braced themselves for a sellout crowd of over 42,000 fans, a good portion of them coming from Los Angeles to cheer on their Dodgers. The gates opened, the hungry entered to be fed after fasting for so many months.
There are always ceremonies on opening day. The military was honored. The first pitch ceremony was thrown by Jerry Coleman, ex-Yankee great, retired Air Force colonel, former Padres manager and long-time Padres broadcaster. Then the players take the field. Then there is the first pitch.
And so the Padres 2012 season began. Starter Edinson Volquez looked like a pitching genius for three full innings. Up to that point, the only hit he gave up was to opposing pitcher Clayton Kershaw, otherwise Volquez notched 5 strikeouts through those three innings. His command on the outside corner was brilliant. His pitch count was manageable.
And Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw, last year's Cy Young award winner was equally impressive, managing to get out of a bases-loaded jam in the third inning leaving Padres third baseman Chase Headley's bat on Headley's shoulder on a one-ball and two-strike count. Then suddenly, in the top of the fourth inning, everything went to hell.
With one out in the top of the fourth inning, Volquez gave up a single to Matt Kemp who then took second on a wild pitch by Volquez to Andre Ethier, who wound up getting a walk. Juan Rivera then singled to shallow center to load the bases. And then Edinson Volquez apparently found himself back in Cincinnati and started nibbling at the plate, hoping to get the called strike or to get Dodgers hitter James Loney to bite on his outside offerings.
Loney walked, and Kemp scored the Dodger's first run.
After another wild pitch, the Padres got a break when Padres catcher Nick Hundley quickly retrieved the ball and threw home where Volquez tagged out Ethier trying to score. It appeared that Ethier was safe with a left hand that touched the plate just before Volquez applied the tag. Volquez then walked Uribe to load the bases. Another walk to A.J. Ellis plated Rivera for the second Dodgers run. Adam Kennedy, who batted for Kershaw - leaving with a touch of the flu (a stomach bug, apparently) - popped out to short to end the inning.
After the Padres went in order in the bottom of the fourth inning, the top of the fifth saw the Dodgers' Dee Gordon reach third base on a fielding error by Cameron Maybin in center. The ball came off of the bottom of Maybin's glove. After Mark Ellis struck out, Padres shortstop Jason Bartlett muffed an easy ground ball allowing Gordon to score and Matt Kemp to reach first base. Kemp was thrown out trying to steal second base and then Andre Ethier struck out, but the damage was done, and Volquez saw the end to his start.
It wouldn't have been a surprise to any Padres fans in the stands if Ray Kroc would have grabbed the public address microphone in the middle of the inning, critical of the team he once owned.
After the game, Bud Black talked about the performance by Volquez, where Volquez admitted afterward that he was rattled by some of the calls by the home plate umpire in the fourth inning.
"He's got good stuff. He's trying to get the ball in the strike zone. If you were to ask him, I don't think he was trying to pick, he was trying to make pitches. You can't throw the ball down the middle to big league hitters, he wasn't doing that, he was very close on a number of pitches."
The pitch to Uribe was a very close pitch, a couple of good pitches to Loney, called balls, if he throws like he did today he's going to have a fine season."
The rest of the game was not as close as the final score would indicate. In the bottom of the sixth, Will Venable pinch-hit for starting right fielder Chris Denorfia. Venable drew a walk and stole second base and Jesus Guzman doubled into the gap and drove home Venable for the first Padres run.
In the top of the eighth inning, after Mark Ellis doubled off of Padres reliever Brad Brach, Matt Kemp slugged a home run to make the score 5-1. The ball barely cleared the wall. Petco Park is notorious for such balls not clearing after a certain time in the evening when the air becomes filled with moisture from the Pacific. When asked afterward if he thought that Kemp's shot would have cleared at 8PM in a normal start-time evening, Black answered diplomatically. "Possibly."
The Padres did try and battle back. After Jeremy Hermida singled to open the bottom of the eighth, Cameron Maybin launched a moon shot to left field. While Maybin struggled in spring training and Cactus League play, his home run measured at 445 feet and was the 7th longest recorded home run in Petco Park's history. Buddy Black was asked if that possibly loosened Maybin up, who seemed to have been pressing late in the exhibition season.
"Statistically he didn't have a great spring, but with a lot of players there's no correlation. It's great for any player to come out and get two hits on opening day, one of them a home run, one of the farthest I've seen hit."
In the ninth, Padres reliever Ernest Frieri managed to load the bases by giving up a single and a walk and then hitting a batter with a pitch, but got out of the inning. Dodgers closer Javy Guerra then set the Padres down in order to end the game. The Dodgers took the opener of the four-game series, 5-3.
While Edinson Volquez was certainly bothered by the balls and strikes calls in the fourth inning, he didn't appear rattled after the game. A very calm and even-tempered Volquez was fine dealing with media in the clubhouse. When asked if he was being squeezed by the home plate umpire, Volquez said, "I don't know, I got to check the video. Uribe, and Rivera a 3-2 count, and it was called a ball. When you throw your best pitch and the umpire makes the call, it can go straight to your head, there's nothing you can do."
When asked about the three errors behind him, Voquez said, "No, I don't really care, that's part of the game. Cameron is one of the best, not too many times you're going to see him drop the ball like that."
Friday, game two of the series against the Dodgers, game time is at 7:05 PM. Corey Luebke will face Chad Billingsley. The game will be broadcast on television from Fox Sports San Diego if you have Cox Cable or DirecTV, otherwise buy a few beers at your local sports bar. Radio XX 1090 will carry the broadcast if you can't get out of the house and you're stuck with Time Warner Cable or some other unworthy system or if you live in Baja.