SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale, Steve Gardner and Jorge Ortiz give their predictions for the new season.
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MIAMI – Given the events of the last six weeks, Anthony Rizzo’s homecoming was going to be emotional regardless. Then he received a standing ovation in a road ballpark. And to top it all, he hit a home run in a season opener played 45 miles south of where his community still mourns an indescribable tragedy.
No wonder the Chicago Cubs first baseman experienced such an overwhelming sensation after going deep in the second inning of his club’s 8-4 victory Thursday over the Miami Marlins.
“I’ve hit a lot of home runs. That was probably the most out-of-body experience I’ve had hitting a home run in my life,’’ said Rizzo, a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Fla.
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Upon reaching home plate, Rizzo tapped his jersey patch with the initials MSD and 17 stars, one for each of the persons killed in the Feb. 14 shooting at the school. Then he pointed to the sky, a rare gesture for him.
Rizzo, who will participate in pregame ceremonies Friday to honor the victims and their relatives, visited his hometown two days before and even watched the Douglas Eagles cruise to a 15-0 baseball victory.
Three hours before the opener, he expressed his support for the Douglas High students who have advocated for stricter gun control laws, saying, “I think it’s a little too easy to go in there and get a gun.’’
But he didn’t expect for the Marlins Park crowd, even with its large Cubs presence, to get up and applaud him before his first at-bat. And he certainly did not foresee pounding a 96 mph fastball from Miami starter Jose Urena well over the right-field fence.
“I wanted to slow down, run the bases, just enjoy that moment,’’ he said. “Hitting a homer on Opening Day is special always, but with everything that’s gone on with Parkland, it’s a little more special personally, and the best part is we won.’’
That was probably the least surprising part of the day.
While the Cubs are widely expected to repeat as National League Central champions, the Marlins figure to be in for a long season after stripping the club of most of its stars under the new ownership of Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter.
Cubs jerseys were much more prevalent than Marlins ones in the main concourse before the game, and those sporting Miami colors typically had names like Stanton and Ozuna on the back.
Those shirts became anachronisms over the offseason as Jeter and his lieutenants traded away National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton, All-Star Marcell Ozuna, fellow outfielder Christian Yelich and former batting champion Dee Gordon in an effort to shed salaries and rebuild with prospects.
It was the latest slap in the face for a fan base used to having red cheeks. The Marlins have registered losing seasons each of the last eight years and have made the playoffs only twice in their 25 years of existence. Both of those times, in 1997 and 2003, they won the World Series, only to have the clubs disbanded by previous ownerships.
Thursday’s crowd of 32,151 was larger than usual but well short of a sellout, continuing a pattern from last season, when Miami did not have a single full house. With the Cubs and then the Red Sox in town through Tuesday, the Marlins figure to draw substantial crowds in their first homestand because those fan bases travel well.
After that? The Marlins finished last in attendance in the NL each of the last five years, and they’ll need better performances than Urena’s outing to generate more enthusiasm.
The 26-year-old Dominican gave up a home run on his very first pitch to Cubs leadoff hitter Ian Happ – it was the first pitch of the MLB season, since the 12:43 p.m. EDT start time was the earliest on the schedule – then hit three batters and walked two more before escaping the inning down 3-0.
The Marlins’ band of no-name players did show some grit in coming back to tie the game 4-4 off Chicago ace Jon Lester before the Cubs broke the game open with a three-run seventh against the bullpen.
“We’d love to have this place packed every day and every time you walk out there play in that environment. But I think we have to prove (ourselves),’’ Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “One thing for sure, we will compete. Our fans will get to know these guys, and they’re going to like them.’’
Perhaps. For now, they certainly appreciate Rizzo.
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