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ST. PETERSBURG Cliff Pennington Jersey , Fla. (AP) — Justin Verlander relished facing Blake Snell on opening day.“I don’t try to hide behind the this-is-just-another-start anymore,” the Houston ace said.The Astros star delivered, beating Snell and the Tampa Bay Rays 5-1 in a rare season-opening matchup between pitchers who finished first and second in balloting for the Cy Young Award.“There definitely is more intensity to it,” Verlander added. ” It’s kind of somewhere between a playoff game and a regular-season game, so I just kind of used the adrenalin, and you go from there.”George Springer homered on opening day for the third straight year. Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve also went deep for the Astros against Snell, the AL Cy Young recipient who won 21 games and led the league in ERA.Verlander (1-0) allowed a leadoff homer to Austin Meadows on his fourth before dominating a mostly young Tampa Bay lineup featuring just one player — center fielder Kevin Kiermaier — who started for the Rays on opening day last year.“I just hit the reset button real quick,” the 36-year-old right-hander said.“It’s not something you want to do, to lead off the year with a homer,” Verlander added. “But I’ve done it before, so it was let’s go turn the page and try to find it.”Verlander, fresh off signing a three-year contract that added $66 million in guaranteed money for 2020 and 2021, limited the Rays to one run and three hits over seven innings before a crowd of 25,025 at Tropicana Field — Tampa Bay’s 14th consecutive sellout for a home opener.“We ran into a buzz saw. He did a great job having all of us off balance,” Kiermaier said. “For me personally, I feel like every time I thought a fastball was coming it was an offspeed. A couple times I thought he’s going to try to get me to chase an off speed, it was a heater.”Verlander, who improved to 4-1 in 11 opening day starts, struck out nine and only allowed one hit — Yandy Diaz’s seventh-inning double — and three baserunners total after walking a batter and plunking another in the second.Ryan Pressly pitched a scoreless eighth and Roberto Osuna worked a perfect ninth inning to finish a combined four-hitter.Springer gave Astros ace all the offensive support he’d need with a three-run homer in the third off Snell, who yielded five runs and six hits over six innings of his first opening day start.The 26-year-old lefty Joey Votto Jersey , who signed a $50 million, five-year contract extension this month, walked two batters ahead of Springer’s home run and finished with three strikeouts.“I was happy with a lot of things I did, but I was upset with sequencing,” Snell said. “Threw first pitch curveballs to Springer twice. Right there credit him. He was waiting for it. I fell in love with the curveball and didn’t mix pitches like I should have been doing.”With the NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom facing Washington’s Max Scherzer earlier Thursday, Snell vs. Verlander became the fourth instance of a reigning Cy Young recipient facing the runner-up for the award on opening day the next season.The other two matchups both occurred in 1979, when reigning AL winner Ron Guidry (Yankees) faced runner-up Mike Caldwell (Brewers) and NL winner Gaylord Perry (Padres) faced Burt Hooton (Dodgers).LATE SELLOUTDespite closing the upper deck at Tropicana Field, reducing capacity of the domed stadium to 25,025 for this season, Thursday’s game wasn’t announced as a sellout until late Wednesday. It’s the 14th consecutive season the Rays have sold out the home opener, however the club routinely finishes near the bottom of the majors in attendance, including 29th among 30 teams in 2018. Attendance for the past five home openers was listed as Last year’s opening day attendance was announced as 31,042.“It’s problematic,” Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg said of the late sellout, noting there were far fewer tickets available than for previous openers.“25,000 seats given everything that we are; the way we finished last year; the team we had; the 4 o’clock start, it should be a layup to use a different sport phrase,” the owner added. “It is what it is.”SUBPAR OUTINGSnell’s loss was his first since July 12 at Minnesota, ending a stretch of nine consecutive victories over a span of 10 starts. … The young left-hander didn’t allow more than two runs in any of his 14 starts at home in 2018. He yielded one or fewer in 12 of them.TRAINER’S ROOMAstros: RHP’s Lance McCullers Jr. (right elbow surgery) and Joe Smith (left Achilles’ tendon surgery) were both placed on the 10-day injured list. Meanwhile, SS Carlos Correa (nick stiffness) said before the game that his injury is “nothing major” and that he hopes to be ready to play some time before the end of the four-game series.Rays: To finalize the opening day roster http://www.redsfanproshop.com/authentic-cliff-pennington-jersey , 3B Matt Duffy (left hamstring tightness), LHP Anthony Banda (Tommy John surgery) and RHP Jose De Leon (Tommy John surgery) were placed on the 10-day injured list.UP NEXTRHP Charlie Morton, 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA in 30 starts last season with Houston, will make his Tampa Bay debut Friday night against the Astros and RHP Gerrit Cole (15-5, 2.88 ERA in 2018). Signed to a $30 million, two-year contract as a free agent by the Rays, Morton won Game 7 in both the ALCS and World Series in 2017 for the Astros. Elsa/Getty ImagesIf starting pitchers still matter, Dallas Keuchel is a free agent to watch.If velocity isn't everything, Keuchel is a free agent worth tracking.If past success means anything, well, name another pitcher on this winter's market who has a Cy Young Award on his ledger. CC Sabathia is more than a decade removed from his 2007 Cy Young and will celebrate his 39th birthday in the middle of next season. Maybe you want to count Clayton Kershaw, butafter he and the Los Angeles Dodgers agreed Wednesday night to extend the deadline for him to opt out of hiscontract, it seems more and more like he'drather just stay where he is.Keuchel will turn 31 on New Year's Day. He won his Cy Young only three years ago. There's a good chancehe'll leave the Houston Astros as a free agent this winter. And while he hasn't been in the Cy Young conversation since 2015, he did have a 3.23 ERA in 20 starts from June 16 to the end of the season. He also went five innings in his two postseason starts, giving up two earned runs on four hits each time.By today's standards, those have to count as quality starts, right?Keuchel started the All-Star Game in 2015, the year he won the Cy Young Award.Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesOnly four pitchers made at least two starts this October and finished at least five innings in each of them. Two of those鈥擩ustin Verlander and Gerrit Cole鈥攚ere Keuchel's teammates with the Houston Astros. Neither of them is a free agent this winter, although the Astros might think about trying to sign Cole to a long-term deal.The other two are Keuchel and Nathan Eovaldi, whose outstanding postseason has vaulted him up the list of free-agent starters.Eovaldi is one of the hardest throwers in the game Reggie Sanders Jersey , with a fastball that averaged 97.1 mph in 2018, according to MLB.com's Statcast. Keuchel's fastball averaged 89.3 mph, which may once have been considered average but ranked 298th among starters in 2018.In an era where nearly every hitter is trying to lift the ball, Keuchel was the only starter who got twice as many ground balls as fly balls, according to FanGraphs. In an era when managers are hesitant to let starters go deep into games, he was one of only 13 starters to pitch at least 200 innings. In an era where players regularly head to the disabled list, he was one of only three pitchers to make 34 or more starts (Verlander and Jhoulys Chacin of the Milwaukee Brewers were the other two).And no matter what you think about using an opener and redefining roles, those things should still matter. They make Keuchel valuable, and they give his agent, Scott Boras, plenty to sell to teams in need of starting pitching.Isn't that just about every team?It may not be the Astros, the only team Keuchel has pitched for. Jon Heyman of Fancred reported Mondaythat the Astros plan to extend Keuchel the $17.9 million qualifying offer, but they seem unlikely to give him the big contract he will seek. With Verlander, Cole and Lance McCullers Jr. coming back, they don't have as big of a need for him as other teams might.While it may be hard to sell Keuchel as the ace he was in 2015鈥攈e had 20 wins, a 2.48 ERA and pitched 232 innings that season鈥攈e still looks good compared to most of the other starters on this winter's market.Eovaldi could be a popular choice, but could you count on him staying healthy through a long-term contract? Patrick Corbin will rank ahead of Keuchel, but this was the first time since 2013 he has been able to throw 200 innings, making him a risk. Hyun-Jin Ryu? He had a 1.97 ERA, but he pitched only 82.1 innings for the Los Angeles Dodgers.J.A. Happ? Gio Gonzalez? Neither of them can match Keuchel's track record of success.If a team has a great rotation http://www.redsfanproshop.com/authentic-cliff-pennington-jersey , Keuchel ideally would be a third or fourth starter. That's what he was with the Astros this year.Keuchel debuted with the Astros in 2012, when they were a National League team headed for 103 losses. By 2017, he was holding the World Series trophy with Jose Altuve.Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesBut how many teams have three starters better than him? How many have two? Or even one?Even for teams that would like to follow the lead of the Tampa Bay Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers and redefine the role of starting pitcher, someone needs to eat up innings. Then again, based on the way Keuchel talked about new pitching strategies during a postseason news conference, he may not be the right guy for those teams."I don't like it at all," Keuchel said. "I think it's kind of a fad. And I mean if you're trying to win one or two games, I can see where you would try it out. But through the course of the whole season, you're going to get some guys hurt who aren't used to throwing as much. That's why starters are built to go six, seven innings, eight innings, and relievers are one-inning, maybe two-inning guys."So you can't couple six or seven relievers in one game and expect them to last 162 games. That's just not the way it is."Keuchel was a five-inning guy in the postseason, but he was a six- or seven-inning guy for much of the season. There's no reason he can't be that for whichever team signs him this winter.Even in this era of openers, initial out-getters and bullpen games, that should be worth quite a bit. Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.
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