PITTSBURGH (AP)—Ned Yost might not make a more surprising move all season than writing Jeff Cirillo’s name on his opening-day lineup card. The Milwaukee manager might not make a better one, either.
Cirillo homered and doubled in his return to the Brewers, and Ben Sheets outpitched Oliver Perez in a matchup of two of the NL’s best young starters Monday during Milwaukee’s 9-2 rout of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Sheets was given little support during a 2004 season that was much better than his 12-14 record indicated—the Brewers scored one run or fewer in nine of his losses. But he got plenty of help in his fourth consecutive opening day start from Milwaukee’s newest regular, shortstop J.J. Hardy, and the oldest, Cirillo.
The 35-year-old Cirillo, one of the most popular players in team history while hitting .307 for Milwaukee from 1994-99, was released by San Diego after 33 games last year and was out of baseball the rest of the season. He later signed a minor league contract with Milwaukee and wasn’t certain of a spot on the 25-man roster until late in camp.
Wes Helms and Russell Branyan were expected to platoon at third, but Yost unexpectedly started Cirillo and was rewarded with a run-scoring double in the second and a solo homer in the fourth.
“If you had told me Feb. 11 that I would be in this position today, starting for the Brewers, I would have told you you were crazy,” Cirillo said. “This game’s been taken from me once. I didn’t think I was going to have a job.”
Much less on opening day.
“He deserved to be out there,” Yost said. “He does things to help you win. I’m not saying Wes doesn’t … but against a guy like Oliver Perez, we felt Jeff would be a better fit.”
Cirillo also made an excellent grab of Jason Bay’s line drive that appeared headed for the left-field corner in the fifth, stranding two runners and leaving the Pirates down 4-2.
“That was big,” Sheets said. “I left a breaking ball up and I’m lucky he hit a line drive instead of a bomb.”
Hardy, known more for his defense than his offense in the minors, added a two-run single for his first career hit in a five-run Brewers sixth. He is the first Milwaukee player since Paul Molitor in 1977 to make his major league debut on opening day.
“That hit bought Ben Sheets two more innings because if he doesn’t drive in anybody there, we’re going to have to pinch-hit,” Yost said. “That was a huge hit.”
Even as each of their teams endured a 12th consecutive losing season last year, Sheets and Perez had a combined 503 strikeouts and a 2.83 ERA. But what looked to be an exceptional pitching matchup was a mismatch.
Perez, who had a 2.98 ERA and 239 strikeouts in his first full major league season, allowed six runs and five hits, walked three and hit a batter in five-plus ineffective innings. He also threw a run-scoring wild pitch.
“I don’t have any excuses,” said Perez, who missed part of spring training with shoulder stiffness. “We’ve got 161 games left, and we just have to forget this day.”
So much for PNC Park being the Brewers’ toughest venue. They were 11-26 there the last four seasons and 2-6 last year, when Sheets was 1-3 against Pittsburgh.
Despite a near-perfect day—sunny skies and a high of 60 degrees, one day after a spring storm dumped snow on PNC Park—the crowd of 38,016 didn’t have much to cheer during Sheets’ effective, if not overpowering, start.
Sheets, previously 4-7 against the Pirates, allowed eight mostly harmless hits and two runs over seven innings, striking out six and walking none. Matt Lawton went 3-for-4 in his Pirates debut and Benito Santiago tripled in his first Pittsburgh at-bat, but the rest of the lineup did little.
“They had a guy named Sheets out there,” Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He holds a lot of teams down.”
It was the first NL contest of the year. The Mets-Reds game in Cincinnati started a half-hour later. … White wanted to wear jersey No. 00, as he did last season in Cleveland, but he got No. 88, just as in spring training. The Pirates have never had a No. 00 in their history. … The sellout crowd was the Pirates’ largest on opening day in PNC Park’s five-year history. … Sheets is 3-0 with one no-decision during his four opening day starts. … CF Tike Redman and SS Jack Wilson were the only Pirates who were also in last year’s opening day lineup.