- By NOAH TRISTER, AP Baseball Writer
- Second base umpire Ed Hickox, left, watches as Houston Astros' George Springer, right, rounds second after hitting a solo home run off Texas Rangers' Cole Hamels on a lead at-bat in the first inning of a baseball game in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, March 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
By NOAH TRISTER, AP Baseball Writer
When Ian Happ hit the first pitch the 2018 baseball season for a home run, he gave opening day an immediate highlight — but the Chicago outfielder’s shot wasn’t a total surprise.
Gone are the days when leadoff batters were supposed to be speedy singles hitters. Now players like Happ — who had 24 homers and only eight stolen bases last year — fit the mold.
There’s no longer much debate about the importance of on-base percentage, especially at the top of the lineup. It helps to have baserunners when the power hitters in the middle of the order come up — and stolen bases can actually be more useful at the bottom of the order, as a way of manufacturing runs with weaker hitters. While it’s still nice to have some speed in the No. 1 spot, it’s by no means a requirement.
Happ’s home run gave the Cubs an instant 1-0 lead over Miami, and Houston’s George Springer also hit a leadoff homer against Texas on Thursday. Even with the speedy Jose Altuve on the roster, Springer was the Astros’ main leadoff hitter last season. He hit 34 homers and had only five steals for the World Series champs.
Baltimore even put Chris Davis atop the batting order to start this season. Davis has never stolen more than four bases in a year. He’s known for hitting home runs and drawing walks, and he may need to improve his low batting average (.215 last season) if he’s going to last as a leadoff hitter. He’s 0 for 12 to start 2018.
Here are a few more notes from an abbreviated first week around the major leagues:
Shohei Ohtani won his debut as a pitcher Sunday, allowing three runs and three hits in six innings for the Los Angeles Angels in their game at Oakland. He went 1 for 5 in his lone appearance as a hitter.
Texas slugger Joey Gallo, who hit 41 home runs last season, faced a four-man outfield at times in a series against the Astros. He solved that by hitting a home run over the shift on Sunday.
Only 28 percent of Gallo’s balls in play last year were grounders, according to Fangraphs.com.
The Dodgers outscored the Giants 14-2 in a four-game series in Los Angeles — and only came away with a split.
Detroit and Pittsburgh were tied 6-all heading into the ninth in their season opener Friday. Then each team scored four runs before the game went to extra innings. The Pirates eventually won 13-10 in 13 .
Only twice previously had a game gone to extra innings after both teams scored exactly four runs in the ninth, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
LINE OF THE WEEK
Matt Davidson of the Chicago White Sox became the fourth player to homer three times on opening day, joining George Bell (1988), Tuffy Rhodes (1994) and Dmitri Young (2005). Of the four players to accomplish the feat, three of them — including Davidson — did it against the Royals.
The Yankees may have their lineup of home run hitters, but Toronto’s Kevin Pillar showed New York a different way of getting around the bases. After an eighth-inning single Saturday, Pillar stole second, third and home against Yankees reliever Dellin Betances. The first two steals came without a throw, and then Betances threw wildly after Pillar broke early for home.
Honorable mention to Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki, who at age 44 showed he can still make home run-saving catches when he took one away from Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez on Saturday.
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