It’s a week later than it was supposed to be and it’s not happening where it was supposed to happen, but Major League Baseball is back this week after a long offseason of doubt. The Brewers’ home opener has been pushed back to April 14, a date with its own unique significance, but on Thursday they’ll return to the field in Chicago for the first pitch of the 54th season in franchise history.
Some of those seasons, of course, have started better than others: The 1970 Brewers started the franchise’s first season in Milwaukee by getting drubbed 12-0 at home, while Lorenzo Cain’s game-ending home run robbery and shout of “Not today!” from 2019 is one of the most-played highlights in the Brewers’ recent history.
The Brewers have gotten their season off to good starts more often than not over the years, winning 28 of the 52 contests played to a decision (not counting the 2000 six-inning “tie” in Cincinnati that had to be replayed the next night). The heroes in those games range from franchise icons to one-day wonders, but they all found a way to get it done during the season’s first game. What follows is a list of the 10 best Opening Day performances in Brewers franchise history, sorted by Win Percentage Added (WPA).
Before we begin, a quick note on methodology: Win Percentage Added is a statistic that measures a player’s individual contributions as they affect their team’s chances of winning the game at the time. As such, WPA will value a walkoff single (or walk, for that matter) significantly higher than a grand slam in a blowout. Context is a key factor in WPA, with when something happened mattering as much or more than what happened. So Jose Valentin going 4-for-4 and scoring four times on Opening Day in a blowout in 1996, for example, may rank behind a scoreless relief outing to protect a late one-run lead. Your opinion may vary. With that said, let’s work our way up the list:
10. Chuck Porter (1984)
With a back-and-forth contest hanging in the balance on the first day of the 1984 season, new Brewers manager Rene Lachemann went to his bullpen to protect a two-run lead with no outs and two on in the sixth inning. The first two relievers into the game experienced mixed results: Tom Tellman allowed an inherited runner to score on a groundout, and he and Jerry Augustine loaded the bases with back-to-back walks with two outs. With the bases now loaded and the game potentially on the line, Lachemann turned to Chuck Porter, who had been a starter most of the previous season.
Porter proceeded to strike out A’s catcher Mike Heath to end the sixth, then came back out to retire the side in order in the seventh, and worked around a fielding error in a scoreless eighth. He gave up a home run to lead off the ninth before leaving the game, but still departed with the Brewers holding a 5-3 lead and a 92% chance to win the game, up from 58% when he entered. Sometimes those numbers don’t mean anything. Rollie Fingers entered in relief of Porter and the first three batters he faced all reached and eventually came around to score. The A’s rallied for four in the bottom of the ninth and walked off with a 6-5 victory.
9. Yovani Gallardo (2014)
In 2014, Yovani Gallardo became the only pitcher in Brewers franchise history to make five consecutive Opening Day starts, and the outing he provided this time around was the best among that group. He scattered four hits across six scoreless innings, and only two that reached the outfield. He walked two batters, recorded four strikeouts and got through six innings on 92 pitches before turning a 2-0 lead over to the Brewers bullpen. Brandon Kintzler, Will Smith, and Francisco Rodriguez each worked a scoreless frame and the Brewers held on for a 2-0 victory.
Gallardo’s best Opening Day was also his final Opening Day as a Brewer, as he was traded to Texas following the season. Over the six seasons that followed, the Brewers would use six different starters on the season’s first day and receive just one quality start (more on that later).
8. Dave Nilsson (1994)
Nilsson was just 24 years old, but had already played in 151 MLB games when the Aussie catcher was given his first Opening Day assignment, putting down signs for Cal Eldred at County Stadium. The duo got off to a rough start: It was only 31 degrees at first pitch, with the wind howling out to right field at nearly 30 mph and field conditions that the box score would later describe as “wet.” Eldred gave up two doubles, two walks, a wild pitch, and a grand slam in the top of the first inning that left the Brewers a 5-0 hole.
The Crew’s offense was not done, however. Nilsson singled to left and came around to score as they tied the game at five in the bottom of the third inning, then singled again in the fourth, sixth and eighth as the Crew rallied to win 11-7. His four hits tied a career high and made him the first Brewer ever to reach that mark in an Opening Day contest. Nilsson was well on his way to the best season of his career when the MLBPA went on strike in August and the season abruptly ended. He had a .360 on-base percentage in his final 21 games before the strike, showing the first flashes of a skill he would maintain for the rest of his career.
7. Ben Sheets (2008)
Sheets made six Opening Day starts in his career, the most of any Brewer, and the last three were all excellent performances: In 2005, he beat the Pirates by allowing two runs across seven innings. In 2007, he pitched a rare Opening Day complete game in a 7-1 win over the Dodgers. By WPA, however, the best start of the group was his last one in 2008.
On that day at Wrigley Field, the Cubs only reached base safely in two of Sheets’ six completed innings before he eventually left the game after giving up a ground ball single in the seventh. Sheets worked 6 1/3 scoreless innings in the game, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out seven. The Brewers, however, had been unable to score against Carlos Zambrano, so Sheets received a no-decision for his outing.
Neither team scored at all, in fact, until the Brewers broke through with three in the top of the ninth. The Cubs bounced back with three of their own off Eric Gagne in the bottom half, sending the contest to extras. The Brewers eventually won 4-3 on Tony Gwynn Jr.’s tenth inning sac fly to score Craig Counsell.
6. Chase Anderson (2018)
The fifth different Brewer to get the ball on Opening Day in as many seasons, Anderson did something only four other pitchers in franchise history had ever done: Log six scoreless innings on Opening Day. He allowed just one hit (also tying a Brewers Opening Day record) during his outing against the Padres, a game the Brewers went on to win 2-1 in 12 innings.
Anderson carried a 2.86 ERA across six starts in March and April that season, and the Brewers went 4-2 in those outings.
5. Teddy Higuera (1987)
Higuera worked seven innings on each of three consecutive Opening Days from 1986-88 but, by WPA at least, the middle outing of the three was the best one. On that day, the Brewers staked Higuera to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning against a Red Sox lineup that included two future Hall of Famers and Higuera took it from there.
Higuera scattered six hits across seven innings, stranding runners in scoring position in the second, fourth and seventh, but did not allow a run in a game the Brewers went on to win 5-1. It was the first of 17 games that season where Higuera pitched at least seven innings in a game the Brewers went on to win.
4. Scott Podsednik (2004)
A waiver claim following the 2002 season, Podsednik wasted no time cementing himself as one of the most prolific base stealers in Brewers franchise history. Yet on Opening Day in 2004, his power was the story.
Podsednik had already driven in a run with a fielder’s choice in the third inning and doubled in the fourth when he came up with two on and two out in a 4-4 game in the sixth inning, and he took the 2-2 pitch from Cardinals starter Matt Morris deep to right to give the Crew a 7-4 lead. They went on to win the game 8-6.
Podsednik’s season is better remembered for other reasons, of course: He stole 70 bases that year, the most by any Brewer since the team had moved to Milwaukee. He was a rare bright spot on a team that went 67-94, and following the season the Brewers traded him to the White Sox in the deal that brought Carlos Lee to Milwaukee.
3. Sixto Lezcano (1980)
Across 53 seasons to this point, the Brewers have had 46 different batters hit a home run on Opening Day. The list ranges from stars like Robin Yount and Ryan Braun to less memorable names like Turner Ward and Andy Kosco and even includes a starting pitcher (Jhoulys Chacin). There is, however, only one Brewer that has ever gone deep twice in the first game of the season.
On April 10, 1980, Sixto Lezcano beat the Red Sox almost singlehandedly with a performance that would have stood out in Brewers history even if it hadn’t been Opening Day, but was made all the more special by the season-starting circumstances. The story starts in the bottom of the fourth inning, when Lezcano hit a two-run home run off Red Sox pitcher and future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley to tie the game at three and give the Brewers new life.
Lezcano’s first home run is just a footnote to what happened later. The two teams were tied in the bottom of the ninth when Paul Molitor singled, Ben Oglivie was intentionally walked, and Gorman Thomas walked to bring Lezcano up again with the bases loaded and two outs. Lezcano homered down the right field line for just the second walkoff grand slam in Brewers franchise history, and he still stands alone as the only Brewer ever to homer twice on Opening Day.
2. Travis Shaw (2021)
It’s hard to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in any more dramatic fashion than what the Brewers did on Opening Day last season. They were down 5-2 to the Twins in the bottom of the ninth with one out and the bases empty when Kolten Wong was hit by a pitch, Keston Hiura reached on a fielder’s choice, and Christian Yelich singled to drive home a run and make it a 5-3 game. Avisail Garcia’s groundout to first base put the potential tying run in scoring position, but brought the Brewers down to their final out.
That was the scene for Travis Shaw, a one-time Brewers great returning to Milwaukee for the first time since a disastrous 2019 season where he played his way out of town with a .157 batting average across 86 games. Shaw already had a hit in the contest, a second inning single, but it paled in comparison to what he was about to do. He swung at the first pitch and lined a double into the gap in right center, plating Hiura and Yelich and tying the game on what could have been its final swing.
All told, Shaw’s return to Milwaukee wasn’t the fairy tale ending it seemed like it could have been. After this big Opening Day, he batted just .184 across his next 55 games before getting claimed off waivers in August. Nonetheless, he’ll always hold the highlight for one of the Brewers’ greatest Opening Day performances.
1. Aramis Ramirez (2013)
A longtime member of the Pirates and Cubs, Ramirez continued his career of steady contributions in his first season in Milwaukee in 2012. He checked all the traditional statistics boxes by batting .300, hitting 27 home runs, driving in 105 runs, and leading the National League with 50 doubles. The next year, he picked right up where he left off.
The Brewers were down 3-2 to the Rockies in the bottom of the eighth inning when Ramirez came up with two on and two out and did what he did best, doubling down the left field line to plate both runners and give the Crew a 4-3 lead. Ramirez wasn’t done there: He also drew a walk in the bottom of the 10th to advance the eventual winning run to third base before Jonathan Lucroy hit a sac fly to walk off with a 5-4 victory. All told, Ramirez was credited with .679 WPA in the game, a Brewers Opening Day record. It was the second most WPA any Brewer accumulated in a game that season.
• Josh Hader striking out the side in the 10th inning last season narrowly missed the cut, as did his two-inning save and Christian Yelich homering against the Cardinals in 2019.
• Teddy Higuera nearly made this list with back-to-back Opening Day performances, as he also threw seven scoreless innings in the first game of the 1988 season.
• Jim Slaton’s Opening Day shutout of the Yankees in 1976 still stands as the only Opening Day complete game shutout in franchise history.
• The “just missed” list also includes an Opening Day triple for Pedro Garcia in 1974 and Royce Clayton’s home run in 2003, both of which came in losing efforts.
• Jack Aker had a notable outing in the first game in franchise history, protecting a one-run lead and nailing down a save in the first win for the 1969 Seattle Pilots.
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