My pick for the best opening day in Angels history happened after a delay at the start of the season, so it’s fitting we remember this game as we wait for baseball to return in 2020.
A players strike in 1972 pushed back opening day from April 5 to April 15, an unusual Saturday start to the regular season. The Angels opened at home against the brand new Texas Rangers, who moved from Washington that offseason.
While the Rangers were managed by Hall of Famer Ted Williams, at the helm of the Angels was Del Rice, an inaugural Angels player who followed his 17-year career by coaching 10 seasons in the majors and minors. This was his first (and only) season as a major league manager, and Rice was anxious to get started, telling The Sporting News during the strike, “All I ever wanted was to become a big league manager. I finally get the job and the players quit.”
My first instinct was to pick the Angels’ first game in Anaheim as their best opening day, but in the first year of Anaheim Stadium (1966) the Halos began the season in Chicago. Then I thought about picking Jared Weaver’s gem, striking out 10 Royals in eight shutout innings in 2012.
I figured Nolan Ryan would figure prominently, and he pitched quite well in his three opening day nods for the Angels, allowing two runs in each game, totaling 26 innings, while winning all three. He struck out 12 in two of the games, and walked 10 in another, hitting both ends of the Nolan Ryan spectrum. Very good, but not quite best Angels opening day territory.
Frank Tanana pitched two opening day shutouts for the Angels, beating the Mariners in their first-ever game in 1977, and blanking the A’s one year later. There have been four total complete-game shutouts by Angels pitchers on opening day — two by Tanana, and two by Andy Messersmith. Using Game Score, a novelty stat created by Bill James to approximate starting pitcher performance, Weaver’s start came in third among Angels on opening day, surpassed only by those two Messersmith starts.
Messersmith’s first opening day shutout with the Angels was in 1970 against the Brewers, who had just moved from Seattle. Maybe he had a thing about shutting out teams in their first game after moving cities. I picked Messersmith’s 1972 shutout of the Rangers as the best Angels opening day ever.
This was a tight game throughout, with Dick Bosman matching zeroes with the Angels hurler. But the story was Messersmith, who retired his first 11 batters before walking Rangers first baseman Don Mincher in the fourth inning. Messersmith walked five batters in this game, but had his no-hitter intact until catcher Hal King singled to right field to open the seventh inning.
“Boy, for an opener that was all right. … I wasn’t sure how sharp I’d be. Everything just fell into place,” Messersmith told the Pasadena Star News. “I was thinking about a no-hitter from the fourth inning on. I had such good stuff and I felt so good I thought I might make it.”
Toby Harrah singled off Messersmith in the eighth but was stranded in scoring position. The game remained scoreless until the ninth. Dave Nelson reached on an error by Angels shortstop Leo Cardenas, but Messersmith erased him immediately with a double play.
Bosman remained in the game in the ninth as well, and Sandy Alomar greeted him with a walk to open the bottom of the inning. Mickey Rivers sacrificed Alomar to second, and reached himself on an error by King. Leo Cardenas walked to load the bases with nobody out. To give you an idea how rare it was for those three particular Angels to load the bases, their on-base percentages in 1972 were .292, .256, and .272.
That golden opportunity was cashed in when reliever Paul Lindblad threw a wild pitch to Jim Spencer, his first batter faced, allowing Alomar to trot home with the winning (and only) run. A perfect way to start off the Angels’ seventh season in Anaheim. The Angels were just 75-80 that season, finishing fifth in a six-team AL West, but at home they were 44-36.
Angels 1, Rangers 0
Time of game: 2:00
WP - Andy Messersmith (1-0): 9 IP, 2 hits, 5 walks, 9 strikeouts
LP - Dick Bosman (0-1): 8+ IP, 5 hits, 1 unearned run, 2 walks, 6 strikeout