ANAHEIM, Calif. — A calf, a hip and an elbow showed up at Angel Stadium on Thursday night, and it wasn’t a guy-goes-into-a-bar joke. Rather, as the sun rose in the west on a new baseball season, three body parts converged that, one way or another, will play pivotal roles in the A.L. West race.
Indeed, one of the beauties of a new season is that it not only comes packaged with optimism and the promise of the coming summer but, for certain players, it also includes muscles and joints being back in one piece after being strained, pulled, torn or frayed the year before.
It was Mike Trout’s right calf, good to go for 2022 after a tear limited him to only 36 games last year. His Los Angeles Angels teammate, third baseman Anthony Rendon, was back in the lineup after surgery last August to repair a right hip impingement that cut his season short after 58 games.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, Houston will insert its one-time ace Justin Verlander into its rotation following Tommy John surgery two Septembers ago that along with other health issues has kept him out of baseball for all but one appearance since 2019.
Together, those three players have combined for four Most Valuable Player Awards (Trout 3, Verlander 1), two Cy Young Awards (Verlander), 18 All-Star Game appearances (Trout 9, Verlander 8, Rendon 1) and two World Series titles (Verlander with the 2017 Astros; Rendon with the 2019 Nationals).
Collectively, they are on contracts worth $696.5 million (Trout $426.5 million over 12 years, Rendon $245 million over seven and Verlander $25 million for 2022).
Individually, each is an important pillar as the Astros take aim at their fifth division title in the past six seasons and the Angels look to step into the postseason for the first time since 2014.
“A lot of exciting things ahead,” Trout said, and if that isn’t the opening day credo in all 30 major-league clubhouses, it sure fits in both dugouts here.
Trout, Rendon and Shohei Ohtani, the A.L.’s M.V.P. in 2021, appeared together in the Angels lineup only 17 times last season. Should that happen again, the Angels are sunk.
The 2022 M.L.B. Season Begins
Baseball is back after a labor dispute delayed the start of the season.
While Trout and Ohtani are megastars, Rendon’s ongoing health issues have made some forget the impact he can make on the field.
“He’s one of those guys who can go under radar at certain points, especially with the high-profile guys we have, but he is as impactful as any of them,” Angels General Manager Perry Minasian said this spring of Rendon. “He’s one of the better hitters in the game, one of the better players in the game. He has outstanding aptitude, he’s a winner in multiple postseasons.”
In Washington’s run to a World Series title in 2019, Rendon knocked in a major league-leading 126 runs and also led the N.L. with 44 doubles. He hit .319 with a .412 on-base percentage and smashed 34 home runs.
Playing alongside Ohtani, though, it is easy for Rendon — or anyone else, Trout included — to slide under that radar.
Ohtani’s allure was evident in the sellout crowd of 44,723 on Thursday night. It was obvious in the noticeably loud pregame ovation for his translator, Ippei Mizuhara, and in the news media crush to speak with him (250 people were credentialed, which was more than t for their 2014 playoff appearance, Angels officials said). Ohtani wasted no time producing another jaw-dropping accomplishment: He became the first player in baseball history to throw his team’s first pitch in a season (a strike to Jose Altuve, whom Ohtani whiffed) and, as a hitter, face his team’s first pitch in a season (batting leadoff ahead of Trout, he grounded out to rookie Houston shortstop Jeremy Peña).
Then, of course, when Ohtani finished pitching for the evening after 4 ⅔ innings, nine strikeouts, four hits, 80 pitches and a 1-0 deficit in an eventual 3-1 Houston win, he transitioned comfortably into the designated hitter role atop the Angels lineup.
“You’ve got to be a great ballplayer for them to change a rule for you.,” Houston Manager Dusty Baker said, referring to the new M.L.B. rule allowing a player to transition mid-game to D.H. from pitcher.
Baker, who in his 25th season as manager needs only 12 wins to become the 12th person to notch 2,000 victories, talked about the difficulty of playing two ways and how “sooner or later,” when age begins to catch up to him, Ohtani may have to choose between hitting and pitching.
“How old is he, 27?” Baker asked before he laughed and acknowledged that age “ain’t going to catch up to him for a while.”
Youth, like hope, seemingly springs eternal at the dawn of a new season. Verlander, 39, is only the 10th pitcher age 37-or-older known to have had Tommy John surgery, according to MLB.com (Verlander underwent the procedure at 37, rehabilitated through 38 and turned 39 on Feb. 20).
But “his arm is probably 26. I’ve seen this before,” Baker said. “I saw it with Orel Hershiser. I saw it with Tommy John, the original Tommy John.”
Said Astros All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman of Verlander’s return: “It’s big. He looked great in spring training.”
As certain a Hall of Famer as an active player can be, Verlander was slotted third in the Astros’ rotation behind lefty Framber Valdez and righty Jake Odorizzi in part because of the way days off fall early in the Astros schedule. Houston intends to spot Verlander an extra day of rest between starts whenever it can as a hedge against fatigue. However Verlander’s year turns out, a club that has played in three of the past five World Series (2017, 2019, 2021) and is a favorite to return to October again is thrilled to add a marquee talent after losing such luminaries as Gerrit Cole (New York Yankees), George Springer (Toronto Blue Jays) and Carlos Correa (Minnesota Twins) to free agency over the past few winters.
Good thing, then, that new seasons also come with replacement parts. Peña, 24, made his major league on Thursday, plugging the hole at shortstop left by Correa. He is the son of the former major leaguer Gerónimo Peña, who played for St. Louis (1990-1995) and Cleveland (1996). Jeremy played three seasons at the University of Maine and was Houston’s third-round pick in 2018. Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, now a special assistant to Houston owner Jim Crane, spoke glowingly of Peña during batting practice before Thursday’s opener. The Astros intend to give their young shortstop space to develop at his own pace.
“We’re not putting pressure on him,” Baker said. “The world might be putting pressure on him, know what I mean? Pressure’s something you have to deal with in this game. Imagine Didi Gregorius taking over for Jeter, a guy that, what was he there, 20 years? I was in same position, supposed to be next Hank Aaron in Atlanta, or Bobby Bonds the next Willie Mays. There’s always the next somebody.”
That all comes with time, blanks to be filled in during the coming six-month grind. As for now, even veterans feel like kids when the curtain rises — for a time, at least. The ever-youthful Trout turns 31 in August and acknowledged that in returning from the calf injury, he now works daily with the Angels’ training staff on exercises to keep him “loose and flexible.”
“Stuff that when you’re a little younger, you don’t really pay attention to,” he said, before adding with a chuckle, “ask any of our training staff, I’m not very flexible.”