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Pitching duel provides fine opener04/03/2008 8:14 PM ET
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The cries of "play ball" could be heard on Thursday in dozens of ballparks around the country, in small towns and reasonably major metropoli from Altoona, Pa. to Tucson, Ariz., as Minor League Baseball got into the swing of things.
But that first shout came just after 2 p.m. ET in Syracuse, where the season's first Minor League game of the season took place as the Chiefs (Blue Jays) played host to the Louisville Bats (Reds).
Once the traditional Opening Day festivities and introductions were concluded (including fireworks that seemed to come perilously close to a small aircraft that happened to fly over the stadium at that moment), the main event got underway.
As luck would have it, the marquee matchup of a pair of 2004 first-rounders more than lived up to its billing as Toronto southpaw prospect David Purcey (14th overall) outdueled future Cincinnati star right-hander Homer Bailey (No. 7 that spring) as the hosts prevailed, 2-0.
For Purcey, the victory was especially satisfying since he'd missed half of the 2007 season following elbow surgery. He tossed six innings of two-hit shutout ball, striking out seven, and made Toronto player development director Dick Scott's preseason prediction that Purcey would be the organization's "comeback player of the year" look like a good call indeed.
Bailey, though he took the loss, looked fine as well, allowing one run on five hits over seven innings of work.
The matchup marked the first time the two potential aces had faced each other since the '04 draft, when their names were called just moments apart. But Purcey was not thinking about his mound opponent.
"I used to get into that, thinking like 'It's me and this guy and we're going to go out and pitching against each other,'" he said. "But I've come to realize that it's not that at all. It's me against their hitters and him vs. our hitters."
Bailey's one mistake pitch came in the fourth inning when Syracuse outfielder Adam Lind led off by getting hold of a 1-2 pitch and depositing it just over the center-field wall for the first home run of the 2008 Minor League season.
"I was just trying to get a fastball to hit when I was down in the count," Lind said. "I had to hit whatever he threw me and was fortunate to get it over the fence."
The Chiefs added an insurance run in the eighth when veteran Jorge Velandia greeted relief pitcher Gary Majewski with a leadoff triple and scored on a sharp double to right field by Joe Inglett.
That run would loom large in the ninth as the Minors' top prospect, Louisville center fielder Jay Bruce, stroked a leadoff single against southpaw Mike Gosling and stood on third base with just one out before closer Shawn Camp stranded him there to send the official crowd of 6,465 fans home happy.
The choice of Syracuse to host the Minors' traditional daytime opener was not random, even if the city is more synonymous with college basketball than baseball. It also coincided with the launch of a season-long 125th anniversary celebration of the Triple-A International League.
But the day was a celebration of the co-mingling of the old and the new.
Syracuse boasted something old -- its association with the IL dating back to 1885 -- with something new, a beautiful natural turf of Kentucky bluegrass that was installed this past offseason to replace the artificial turf which graced (or disgraced, depending on how you looked at it) Alliance Bank Stadium since its construction in 1997.
It may seem like a small thing to the casual fan, but the Syracuse players were ecstatic about the change.
"I tell you what, my body feels pretty good right now, because one day with that old turf was like one week," Lind said. "We got here a couple of days ago, and it was awesome to see that grass. It's already more green than when we got here. The grounds crew has done a great job."
Fellow returning infielder/outfielder Russ Adams concurred.
"The new field is a big plus for all of us because we got tired of playing on that old turf," said the former first-round pick. "I was amazed at how great it looks. It's a big relief for all of us to be playing on such a nice surface."
Baseball fans around the country might have been keeping a close eye on Bruce, who topped MiLB.com's preseason Top 50 charts and who celebrated his 21st birthday Thursday.
Purcey had his number in his first three at-bats, getting the young phenom to strike out swinging twice while inducing a comebacker in the other at-bat. But Bruce's single in his final at-bat seemed more like the promising hitter that has so impressed everyone who's watched him.
The 2005 first-rounder hit a combined .319 with 26 home runs and 89 RBIs through three levels of the Minors in '07. He finished the summer with 50 games at Louisville, where he hit .305 with 11 homers and 25 RBIs. He came into his first big league Spring Training with an outside shot at the starting center-field job, but lost out -- for now, at least -- to veteran Corey Patterson, so he made his '08 debut back with the Bats.
Notes: The first hit of the season belonged to Syracuse catcher Robinzon Diaz, who looped a broken bat single to right field in the second . It would be one of four Chiefs bats broken against Bailey. ... The Syracuse victory against Louisville marked the 100th time the Chiefs have beaten their International League rival in 203 games. ... Only two members of the 2007 Opening Day Syracuse lineup were back this year and both were in different positions: Curtis Thigpen, who was the starting catcher in '07 and the starting first baseman in '08, and Adams, who started at second base in '07 and in right field in '08.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.