When you think of an Opening Day starter, odds are you envision your team’s ace, the franchise player or a standout All-Star for the club. But sometimes, the first hurler of the year is unexpected — a star in a uniform he didn’t wear for long, or a less-decorated pitcher with a shorter career.
As Opening Day approaches and teams announce who will take the ball in Game 1 this year, it’s worth taking a look back at some of the Opening Day starters you may not recall from that year, or that team. To narrow down the list, these are all pitchers from recent memory — since 1990 — and only pitchers who made a single Opening Day start for that particular team. There are plenty of options for any team; this is just a sampling to help jog your memory.
Let’s remember some guys and some teams they played for. Here’s one unexpected Opening Day starter for each team.
Blue Jays: Chris Carpenter (2002)
Carpenter is best known for his time with the Cardinals, where he won the 2005 Cy Young Award as well as two World Series titles in 2006 and 2011. But his baseball story actually began as a first-round pick by the Blue Jays in the 1993 MLB Draft. He debuted for Toronto as a 22-year-old in 1997. In 2002, he was tabbed to start Opening Day. He went 2 1/3 innings at Boston, allowing six runs, including four homers. Carpenter’s season was cut short due to right shoulder surgery, and the Jays released him after the season. That’s when the Cardinals picked him up, even as he recovered from surgery, and the rest is history. Carpenter went on to make five additional Opening Day starts, all for the Cardinals.
Orioles: Kevin Millwood (2010)
Millwood’s 16-year career included stints with seven different teams, spending the most time with the Braves, where he pitched six seasons and was an All-Star in 1999. He made six career Opening Day starts prior to joining the Orioles: two with the Phillies (2003-04) and four with the Rangers (2006-09). Following the 2009 season, the Rangers traded him to the Orioles, where he would start on Opening Day 2010 against the Rays. Millwood went five innings and allowed two runs in an eventual Orioles loss. He had a 5.10 ERA in his one season in Baltimore, leading the AL with 16 losses.
Rays: Dewon Brazelton (2005)
The then-Devil Rays drafted Brazelton third overall in the 2001 MLB Draft, after Joe Mauer and Mark Prior went first and second, respectively. He debuted for the club with two starts in 2002. After 10 starts in 2003, he had a more regular role in ‘04, making 22 appearances, 21 of them starts, with a 4.77 ERA. The next year, he was handed the ball for Game 1, facing the Blue Jays. He allowed three runs in 7 1/3 innings but got the loss, with Tampa Bay scoring just two runs. He ultimately posted a 7.61 ERA in 71 innings in 2005. After the season, the Devil Rays traded him to the Padres for Sean Burroughs.
Red Sox: David Wells (2005)
Pedro Martínez made seven straight Opening Day starts for Boston from 1998-2004, but after he departed for the Mets in free agency, the team needed to tab someone else for the job. Wells’ 21-year career included stints with nine different franchises, with the Blue Jays (eight years) and Yankees (four years) being the most notable stops. After leaving the Yankees in free agency to play for the Padres in 2004, Wells signed with the Red Sox the following year and found himself on the mound on Opening Day against one of his former teams: the Yankees. The 41-year-old Wells allowed four runs in 4 1/3 innings and took the loss as the Yankees won, 9-2.
Yankees: Tim Leary (1991)
Leary was traded from the Reds to the Yankees in December 1989. In his first year in the Bronx, the former Mets first-round pick out of UCLA posted a 4.11 ERA and had a Major League-worst 19 losses for a Yankees team that went 67-95, finishing last in the AL East. Leary was a free agent after the season but re-signed with the Yankees and got the Opening Day start. He struck out nine batters against the Tigers in a New York loss, setting a franchise record for strikeouts on Opening Day that has yet to be broken. It was the only Opening day start of his 13-year career — with any team.
Twins: Vance Worley (2013)
Worley began his career with the Phillies from 2010-12 before an offseason trade entering the 2013 season. That pact sent Worley and reliever Trevor May to the Twins for Ben Revere. The new arrival Worley started on Opening Day for Minnesota, allowing three runs in six innings in a loss to the Tigers. Ultimately, he pitched just 10 games for the Twins, missing time with a right elbow injury that ultimately ended his season. The Pirates purchased his contract in March 2014.
Indians: Bud Black (1990)
The current Rockies manager’s 15-year career included stops with the Royals, Giants, Indians, Mariners and Blue Jays. The bulk of his career appearances happened in a Royals uniform — 216 of 398 total. During his time in Kansas City, Black made three Opening Day starts from 1984-86. His Royals tenure came to an end in June 1988, when he was traded to the Indians. He finished the year in Cleveland and re-upped with them in free agency. He started Opening Day for the club in 1990 against the Yankees, going five innings and allowing three runs in an Indians loss.
Royals: Bruce Chen (2012)
Chen pitched in 17 Major League seasons for the Royals, Braves, Orioles, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox, Rangers, Indians, Reds, Expos and Astros. He spent the most time with the Royals, so perhaps this choice is less surprising than some of the others, but the entire twilight of Chen’s career, spent in Kansas City, is worth highlighting. After posting a 3.77 ERA in 2011, the 34-year-old Chen got the call on Opening Day 2012. He went six scoreless innings against the Angels, but the Royals lost, 5-0.
Tigers: Hideo Nomo (2000)
If you were to guess a team for whom Nomo made an Opening Day start, odds are you’d pick the Dodgers. And indeed, Nomo started for them on Opening Day in 2003 and ’04, in his second stint in Los Angeles. But in between Dodgers tenures, Nomo pitched for four teams: the Mets, Brewers, Tigers and Red Sox. On Opening Day 2000, it was Nomo who strode to the mound for Detroit against the A’s, having signed there as a free agent. He went seven innings and allowed three runs, getting the win.
White Sox: David Wells (2001)
That’s right, Wells is on this list twice, for both Sox teams, even though he didn’t spend much time with either one. The Blue Jays traded Wells to the White Sox in January 2001, a year after he’d started Opening Day for Toronto in his second stint with the club. Wells won 20 games for the Blue Jays in 2000 and was an All-Star for the third time in his career, so the Opening Day starter honor remained with him in Chicago. He went six innings and allowed two runs in a win against the Indians. His season in Chicago was cut short when he underwent back surgery at the end of June. As a free agent in the offseason, he signed with the Yankees — again.
Angels: Bert Blyleven (1990)
Blyleven was no stranger to Opening Day starts. He made 12 of them in his 22-year career. The Hall of Famer spent the majority of his career with the Twins, but he also had a four-and-a-half year stint in Cleveland. He made six Opening Day starts for Minnesota, in 1972-76 and ’87. He started once on Opening Day for the Rangers, in 1977, and twice for the Pirates, in 1979-80. In 1981 and ’85, he was Cleveland’s Opening Day hurler. But the start worth highlighting here is the final Opening Day start of his career, in 1990, three days after his 39th birthday. He went five innings, allowing five runs, including a home run to a 20-year-old Ken Griffey Jr., and he took the loss against the Mariners. After missing 1991 due to injury, he’d go on to pitch one more Major League season, for the Angels in ’92.
Astros: Scott Elarton (2001)
Shane Reynolds had started five straight Opening Days for the Astros, but he began the ’01 season on the injured list while recovering from left knee surgery. That opened the door for Elarton to make his first career Opening Day start. He went six innings and allowed two runs as the Astros beat the Brewers. 2001 was his fourth season with the Astros, and in July, the team traded him to the Rockies for Pedro Astacio. He’d make another Opening Day start down the line in 2006, for the Royals.
Athletics: Ben Sheets (2010)
Sheets is best known for his eight years with the Brewers, which yielded four All-Star selections and a franchise-record six Opening Day starts. He pitched for the Brewers through 2008, then did not pitch in 2009 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He signed as a free agent with the A’s entering 2010. With them, he made his seventh and final Opening Day start, going five innings and allowing three runs (two earned) against the Mariners. His season with the A’s ended prematurely due to a torn flexor in his right elbow.
Mariners: Brian Holman (1990)
Holman was a first-round pick by the Expos in the 1983 MLB Draft and debuted for the club in 1988. He made 10 appearances for Montreal in ’89 before he was traded to the Mariners — in the same deal that sent Randy Johnson to Seattle. Johnson would go on to make six Opening Day starts for the Mariners, but it was Holman who got the nod in 1990. He went five innings and allowed three runs (two earned) at the Angels.
Rangers: Tanner Scheppers (2014)
Scheppers was a first-round pick for the Rangers in 2009 and debuted for the club in 2012 as a reliever. In fact, he made just four starts in his six-year career, and they were all in 2014, which means the Opening Day nod that year was his first career start. He allowed seven runs in four innings in a 14-10 Rangers loss to the Phillies. After his fourth start, in April, he went on the injured list with right elbow inflammation. He returned in June for four games as a reliever, then was quickly sidelined with the same injury. The final 57 appearances of his career, after the 2014 season, were all in relief.
Braves: John Burkett (2001)
When he joined the Braves in 2000, Burkett had already been pitching in the Majors for more than a decade. But while he had a couple of very good years with the Giants in the early 1990s, Burkett’s best season would come at age 36 with Atlanta in ’01. Things didn’t start out well. On Opening Day at Cincinnati — the first Opening Day in 11 years that the Braves didn’t have either Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine or John Smoltz start — Burkett gave up four runs over 5 2/3 innings. In his next start, he surrendered five runs in four innings against the Marlins in Florida. But from there, Burkett took off, posting a 2.79 ERA over 32 starts the rest of the way — and remember, this was during the highest run-scoring era in baseball history.
Marlins: Mark Hendrickson (2008)
Hendrickson only spent one season with the Marlins, but he made that season’s Opening Day start for Florida with the Mets in town. He was sandwiched between two straight season openers by Dontrelle Willis, and Opening Day starts for either Ricky Nolasco or Josh Johnson from 2009-13. Hendrickson didn’t fare well, giving up six runs in five innings. By the All-Star break, the left-hander’s ERA stood at 6.09, and he had been demoted to the bullpen. But the second half was much better for Hendrickson — he posted a 2.96 ERA in 16 relief appearances.
Mets: Pete Harnisch (1997)
Harnisch is remembered most for his tenure with the Astros, for whom he made two Opening Day starts, in 1992 and ’94. But the right-hander did spend three seasons with the Mets, starting on Opening Day in 1997 against the Padres in San Diego (fellow veteran right-hander Bobby Jones pitched the opener in the two seasons before, as well as the one after). Harnisch gave up three runs in five innings of a 12-5 loss. Due to injury, he wouldn’t make another start until August, and he was traded to Milwaukee at the end of that month.
Nationals: Jim Bullinger (1997)
From 1988-96, the Expos (who would become the Nationals in 2005) had either Dennis Martinez or Jeff Fassero starting on Opening Day. But in ’97, with both of them having departed in free agency and Pedro Martinez sidelined by injury to open the season, Bullinger got his chance. And he was great, yielding one run over six innings in a 2-1 Expos victory over the Cardinals at Olympic Stadium. Things quickly went south, however — in five more April starts, he posted a 12.63 ERA.
Phillies: Sid Fernandez (1996)
When most people hear the name Sid Fernandez, they think Mets. The left-hander spent 10 years with New York, over which he had a 3.14 ERA. But “El Sid” also spent a year-plus with the Phillies after a trade from the Orioles during the 1995 season. During that era of Phillies baseball, Opening Day was Curt Schilling’s. Schilling missed one Opening Day start from 1994-99, and that was in ’96, when the veteran Fernandez stepped in and gave the Phils seven strong innings, allowing two runs but taking the loss against the Rockies.
Cardinals: Andy Benes (1996)
Benes was a stalwart in the Padres’ rotation in the early 1990s, but he spent five of his final seven seasons with the Cardinals in two stints. Bob Tewksberry was St. Louis’ Opening Day starter in both 1993 and ’94, and Ken Hill — who would be traded later that season — started the opener in ’95. Benes took the ball in ’96 at Shea Stadium, giving up three runs over six innings in a 7-6 Cardinals loss. He had a solid year, finishing with a 3.83 ERA, but he would top that in ’97, when he posted a 3.10 ERA in 26 starts for St. Louis.
Cubs: Jim Bullinger (1995)
Bullinger is one of those rare pitchers who isn’t a frontline starter but somehow got the nod to start on Opening Day multiple times and with multiple teams. Two years before he started the season opener for the Expos, the right-hander took the mound for the Cubs, with whom he pitched from 1992-96. Chicago had just one pitcher start multiple Opening Day games since Rick Sutcliffe’s five straight from 1985-89 — that was Mike Morgan, who started the ’93 and ’94 openers. Bullinger, as he was two years later for Montreal, was stellar, blanking the Reds for six innings in a 7-1 Cubs victory.
Pirates: Tim Wakefield (1993)
In just his second Major League season, and the first in Pittsburgh after the departure of stars Barry Bonds and Doug Drabek, Wakefield took the baseball against the Padres on Opening Day at Three Rivers Stadium, giving up three runs and striking out nine over seven-plus innings of a 9-4 Pirates win. Though he was excellent in his rookie 1992 campaign and helped Pittsburgh reach the NL Championship Series, the rest of his ’93 season wasn’t so smooth, and Wakefield finished with a 5.61 ERA. He wouldn’t turn things around until joining the Red Sox two years later, when he finished third in AL Cy Young Award voting.
Brewers: Rafael Roque (1999)
Roque only pitched three seasons in the Majors, all for the Brewers, but he had the honor of starting for Milwaukee on Opening Day in 1999 against the Cardinals in St. Louis. He only yielded one run, but he needed 56 pitches to get through two innings before the Brewers turned things over to the bullpen. Milwaukee managed to win a slugfest, 10-8. Roque made only eight more starts in his career, mostly coming out of the bullpen through the 2000 season, after which he retired.
Reds: Jimmy Haynes (2003)
Haynes had a 10-year Major League career despite never posting an ERA below 4.12 over a full season. In his penultimate season, he was tabbed to start on Opening Day against the Pirates at Great American Ball Park, and he was hit hard for six runs over four innings, including three homers. He made 17 more starts that season and finished with a 6.30 ERA. He appeared in five games in 2004, but the Reds released him after he gave up 16 earned runs in 15 innings.
Dodgers: Vicente Padilla (2010)
Trying to remember who started on Opening Day for the Dodgers the year before Clayton Kershaw began a run of eight straight? Padilla is your answer. The veteran right-hander was released by the Rangers in August 2009, and eight months later, he was on the mound on Opening Day for the Dodgers at PNC Park. Padilla was roughed up for seven runs over 4 1/3 innings in an 11-5 Los Angeles loss. He made 15 more starts that year and finished with a 4.07 ERA.
D-backs: Javier Vazquez (2005)
Someone had to bridge the one-year gap between Randy Johnson’s final season with Arizona and Brandon Webb’s rise to ace status, and that was Vazquez. The Big Unit started on Opening Day six straight seasons from 1999-2004, and Webb did the same for four straight seasons from 2006-09. But in ’05, Vazquez — one of the players Arizona got back in the trade that sent Johnson to the Yankees — was given the Opening Day nod. The veteran right-hander gave up seven runs and was unable to make it out of the second inning in a 16-6 D-backs loss to the Cubs at Bank One Ballpark.
Giants: Ty Blach (2018)
Heading into Spring Training in 2018, the Giants knew who their Opening Day starter would be — the same guy who had started the season opener in each of the previous four years, Madison Bumgarner. But that changed when Bumgarner took a comebacker off his pitching hand during Cactus League play and was sidelined to open the regular season. Johnny Cueto? Hurt. Jeff Samardzija? Hurt. So it fell to Blach, a left-hander in his third Major League season. He gave San Francisco what it needed with five scoreless innings in an eventual 1-0 Giants victory over the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
Padres: Kevin Jarvis (2002)
From 2001-05, Woody Williams and Brian Lawrence combined for four Opening Day starts for the Padres. But in ’02, Jarvis got the ball for San Diego. He pitched well, going seven innings and giving up two runs on five hits, walking one and striking out four during the Padres’ 2-0 loss to the D-backs in Arizona. The right-hander was a Padre for three seasons, from 2001-03, and he pitched 12 seasons in the Majors with a 6.03 ERA.
Rockies: Kip Wells (2008)
There are a few candidates for this one, but Wells is the choice because his Opening Day start for the Rockies in 2008 was one of only two starts he ever made for Colorado (plus 13 relief appearances). Wells tossed 5 1/3 scoreless frames against the Cardinals in St. Louis, giving up one run on four hits in the Rockies’ 2-1 win. Overall, Wells finished with a 4.71 ERA in a 12-year Major League career, also pitching for the White Sox, Pirates, Rangers, Cardinals, Royals, Nationals and Reds.