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HereÕs What Passes for Controversy These Days
2003-02-28 09:57
by Jon Weisman

Another sign that things are pretty tranquil in Vero Beach is that much of the discussion in todayÕs papers concerns who will start Opening Day, 32 days from now.

Will it be Hideo Nomo, the DodgersÕ workhorse, the team leader in wins and games started in 2002? Or will it be Kevin Brown, who if healthy, remains the nominal ace of the staff?

Well, in theory, the Opening Day starter should be Ņnone of the above.Ó Odalis Perez hasnÕt been mentioned as a candidate, even though he enters 2003 as the DodgersÕ best pitcher, having led the team in ERA and innings pitched in 2002, allowing less than one hit and walk combined per inning. But apparently, Perez doesnÕt have the requisite gravitas to get the assignment, so weÕll let that go.

Another theory would suggest the Dodgers start Giovanni Carrara. Or Don Sutton. Or Jon Weisman.

After all, the opposing Opening Day starter will be, in all likelihood, Randy Johnson.

In the month of April for the past three years, the multi-Cy Young winner is 15-3, 2.06 with seven complete games and zero no-decisions, averaging 7 2/3 innings per start. In his Opening Day start in 2002, Johnson shut out San Diego on six hits, 2-0.

No, you donÕt ever want to concede a game. But if youÕre going to arrange your rotation, does it necessarily make sense to throw your No. 1 against the other teamÕs, when your No. 1, by definition, isnÕt as good?

Perhaps that explains why Odalis Perez might not start until game No. 3, after Johnson and Curt Schilling have passed.

Or perhaps the situation isnÕt that dire.

First, letÕs look at how JohnsonÕs done against the Dodgers.

In 2001, Johnson pitched the Diamondback season opener against the Dodgers (who were playing their second game of the year) and won, 3-2. However, Johnson trailed 2-1 after six innings, finding himself outdueled by Eric Gagne, who made the start for the Dodgers in what already seems like an era gone by. Gagne left leading 2-1. but lefty reliever Jose Nunez gave up a two-run home run to Luis Gonzalez in the seventh.

In the past three years, Johnson is 5-1 with a 2.59 ERA against the Dodgers Š but thatÕs in 11 games. HeÕs averaged 7 1/3 innings per start but won less than half of them, so the Dodgers have been somewhat competitive.

In 2002, Johnson had mixed results in five outings. He had one of his worst starts of the year on May 26, blowing a 4-0 lead by allowing seven runs in five innings, though Arizona rallied to win in extra innings, 10-9.

He came back five days later and allowed three runs Š none earned Š over eight innings in a 6-3 victory over the Dodgers.

On July 1 in Arizona, Johnson shut out the Dodgers for four innings, then allowed four runs in the next three innings. Meanwhile, Nomo shut out the Diamondbacks over eight innings and the Dodgers won, 4-0.

On July 11, Johnson faced Nomo again and won, 4-3, but the loss was pinned to Paul Quantrill.

Finally, on September 4, Andy Ashby allowed five unearned runs in the first inning against Arizona, and Johnson cruised to a complete-game, 7-1 victory.

So Johnson has alternated between dominant and dominable, and Nomo has been up to the challenge.

As for pitching in April, Nomo allowed four runs in three innings in his first start of 2002. However, he then allowed only four earned runs in his remaining 27 2/3 innings for the month.

For his part, an ailing (as it turned out) Brown was hammered by San Francisco as the 2002 Dodger Opening Day starter, allowing seven runs in four innings in a 9-2 defeat.

And remember that opener in 1999, when Johnson started against Brown at Los Angeles? Brown, who would go on to be 18-9 with a 3.00 ERA that year, allowed five runs in 5 2/3 innings Johnson left after 7 innings leading 6-2. But Raul Mondesi homered in the ninth and 11th innings to rally the Dodgers to an 8-6 victory. (This was probably the last great moment in MondesiÕs career.)

Conclusion: It should be Nomo in 2003. Yes, a healthy Brown might still be capable of greatness, and you can make a case against either pitcher in that both of them stunk in their first starts of 2002, but the odds right now are better that Nomo can go 15 rounds with Johnson.

I also think that in setting the tone for the Dodger season, rewarding someone for a strong 2002 is worthwhile. Brown can start the second game against Schilling and feel thatÕs a worthy challenge. Perez can go in game three against new Arizona acquisition Elmer Dessens and be the favorite in that one.

But for March 31 Š yes, March Š letÕs go with Nomo.

If youÕve digested that, hereÕs another conundrum for you: WhoÕs the Opening Day centerfielder? After platooning in 2002, Dave Roberts is going to get his chance against lefties this year Š but will his first chance be against the toughest lefty of them all?

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