Johan Santana is not the first big-name pitcher to come to the Mets and start Opening Day, as there have been a few others scattered in the distant past and many in recent years doing the same. The others have not had the same type of success that the left-handed Santana had in his Mets debut this week, but, for the most part, fans can only hope that Santana is as effective in his Mets career as some of the other players were in theirs.
In 1962, Roger Craig started on Opening Day for the Mets against the St. Louis Cardinals. He lost, as he would 23 additional times that year, surviving just 3 innings and giving up eight hits and five runs while only managing to punchout a single hitter. Craig may have been the Opening Day starter, but he wasn’t entirely a hard-luck loser on a poor Mets team; his ERA+ was just 92.
Craig would pitch for the Mets again in 1963 and pitch just as poorly, posting a record of 5-22 over 236 innings with an ERA+ of 91. The records are a bit extreme despite the below-average ERA+, but overall they were forgettable seasons, especially when compared to other pitcher seasons in the Mets’ storied history.
Don Cardwell was somewhat more successful than Roger Craig during his three seasons as a Met, with only one season sporting an ERA+ under 100, but he lost his Opening Day game as well. To start the 1967 season, Cardwell and the Mets faced off against Bob Veale and the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cardwell’s former team, with the Mets losing 6-3.
Cardwell pitched effectively, lasting 8 innings, striking out 9 and walking just 3 while giving up 3 earned runs. The two unearned runs ruined the start of the season for the Mets though, and Cardwell went home with a loss despite his efforts. He would finish the season with a 5-9 record and an ERA+ of 94, throwing just 118.1 innings. His next two years would go somewhat better, with a 7-13 record and ERA+ of 102 in 1968 and then one of his better years in 1969. Despite an 8-10 record, his ERA+ of 121 was the second best figure of his career, though looking at his peripherals it’s tough to see how he got there.
The Mets wouldn’t have another offseason pickup start Opening Day for a few decades, with the next pitcher to do so Mike Hampton in 2000. Hampton had just finished a successful campaign with the Astros where he went 22-4 with an ERA+ of 154 over 239 innings pitched. The Mets acquired Hampton along with Derek Bell in exchange for Roger Cedeno, Octavio Dotel and Kyle Kessel, but Hampton would only stick for this one year.
As for the game itself, the Mets and Chicago Cubs played in the Tokyo Dome in Japan on March 29, with the Cubs coming away victorious 5-3. This game looked more like one of Hampton’s starts with the Colorado Rockies, as he only struck out one hitter, gave up two runs in five innings but walked nine (nine!) batters.
Jon Lieber pitched something of a boring beauty on the other end, allowing just one run over seven innings but striking out just one hitter himself. Hampton’s lone season in New York wasn’t all as bad as the beginning, as he finished 15-10 with 217.2 innings pitched and an ERA+ of 142, the second best of his career after his excellent 1999 campaign. As for what happened next, Mike Hampton left the Mets for the glorious school systems of Colorado, where he had the two worst seasons of his career before being dumped off by the Rox to the Marlins, then the Braves, who are still paying for his injury-shortened, not-as-effective-as-you’d-like seasons even now.
The next offseason acquisition to start on Opening Day recently left the team about the same way he came in. Tom Glavine, in his first season out of Atlanta in a Hall of Fame worthy career, pitched just 3.2 innings while giving up five runs on four walks and eight hits to the Chicago Cubs, who would eventually win the contest 15-2.
Glavine would finish the year on much better terms with fans than he started, with a 9-14 record and an ERA+ of 93 for a poor Mets squad. That was his worst season with the Mets, as he posted ERA+ figures of 119, 116, 114 and 96 the next four years. Glavine is now once again with the Atlanta Braves, where the 42-year old pitcher will more than likely finish off his career. Whether he will pitch effectively one more season is still up for debate, but he did start off on the right track with five innings and two runs allowed in his first start of 2008.
While Pedro Martinez’s first season as a Met was arguably the best of those on this list—only Hampton’s comes close—his first start, like these others, did not go well, at least after he exited the game. While Pedro threw six innings, struck out 12 and walked just a pair while only allowing three runs, the bullpen blew it, and the Mets lost to the Cincinnati Reds 7-6.
Chances are good that Braden Looper’s appearances are at this point all just a messy, violent mash in your memory, but this one deserves to be singled out. Two homers allowed, three runs, three hits, zero outs recorded. What a way to blow a game, especially on Opening Day; the only thing that makes it look worse is that Danny Graves of all people closed out the save for the Reds on the other end.
Martinez has put together two quality years for the Mets, and came back strong at the end of 2007. What he can contribute in 2008 is somewhat up in the air—a “popped” hamstring in his first start of the year will surely make many fans nervous about his durability—but if healthy, he should be an important piece in a championship caliber team, along with new teammate—and successful Opening Day starter—Johan Santana.