Part of the charm of Opening Day is getting a first look at the new alongside the familiar. To some degree, all organizations remake themselves over the offseason and unveil their winter's work in early April. Although optimism is the theme of Opening Day, it isn't until the persistent grind of the season sets in that a team's identity begins to emerge and its redesigned roster shows signs of how the players fit together.
On this sun-splashed, brisk Opening Day at PNC Park, the Pirates were led by the familiar. Francisco Liriano was fairly strong through six innings. He struck out 10 Cardinals and didn't allow a run. Although he did struggle with his command, yielding five walks, the left-hander successfully navigated through traffic, including two bases loaded situations. Afterwards Francisco Cervelli was effusive in his praise for Liriano.
"I want to see him one day win the Cy Young," Cervelli said. "He is one of the toughest pitchers to hit and catch. Every pitch is different."
David Freese, who couldn't seem happier that he ended up in a Pirates jersey this season, came away fully impressed with Liriano's stuff.
"I was talking to [Jeff] Locke, and we were saying how he is just mean to guys sometimes," Freese said. "He carves guys up. He's an animal out there. He's an ace for sure."
While Liriano was giving the Pirates the type of start that they've come to expect, the new additions to the roster and the tactical adjustments of Clint Hurdle made this opener particularly intriguing.
The first out of the season was recorded by John Jaso, who easily dealt with a challenging grounder hit slightly to his right. The palpable feeling of relief following his clean pickup and toss to Liriano wasn't limited to just those watching from the stands.
"I thought it was a really good play," Hurdle said. "I thought it got all the air out of everywhere. Just go out there and make a play and we're good to go and move on. He was really excited it was hit to him and he was excited to get after it and make a play."
For his part, Jaso was happy to get his first defensive test out of the way early.
"It helped, I definitely have to say it helped," he said. "We're all pretty amped up. It seems like the ball always seems to find the new guys. It was good to get the first one out of the way and to calm down the butterflies a little bit."
The second out of the game came on a difficult chopper that made it only about three-fourths of the way down to third. Freese charged in and made a nice barehanded grab and nipped Tommy Pham with a strong throw to first.
On the day, Freese made three solid plays at third and went 2-4 from the plate.
"It was nice to get a play like that in the first inning," Freese said. "That helped out Liriano's outing and that helped us go on to win the ballgame."
Perhaps even more noteworthy than his successful Pirates debut was how obviously excited both Freese and the organization are with his addition to the team.
Hurdle said he was "thankful" that Neal Huntington was persistent in trying to sign Freese, even when it "seemed at times we planets apart."
"He's a good player," Hurdle said. "He's fit in seamlessly in the clubhouse, in dugout and in the lineup. We're happy we've got him."
After the game, Freese complimented everything from his teammates to the organization to the fans.
"I felt pretty comfortable a few days into camp," Freese said. "This is a really easy group. This is great organization, and I'm not just saying that either. These guys are awesome."
He added that playing at PNC Park is a special experience because of the energy of the crowds.
"I remember coming here in 2011 after being away for a few months and this place was on fire," Freese said. "It's sweet. It's sweet to play here."
Finally, Opening Day provided a first look at some of the tactical adjustments the Pirates appear set to employ this season.
As expected, Andrew McCutchen batted second. He went 0-2, with a walk and hit by pitch. More importantly, he didn't face any bases-empty, two-out situations.
Hurdle revealed another somewhat surprising tactical change before the game. In a move that suggests he may be looking more towards matchups than predetermined bullpen roles, Hurdle said that Tony Watson would not be designated as the eighth-inning guy this year. Instead, the left-hander will float between the seventh or eighth, or wherever he is needed based on the situation.
"There's not going to be a seventh-inning guy." Hurdle said. "I'll look for every opportunity to leverage Watson. If it makes more sense to use him in the seventh, I think that is an area we'll look to."
The newly-found bullpen flexibility paid immediate dividends Sunday afternoon, as Watson was called on in the seventh to face three lefties. He retired the side on two strikeouts and a fly ball.
Watson said he was informed of the plan to use him in a matchup based manner right before the game.
"[I found out] just this morning," Watson said. "It worked out just perfect."
Watson added that he is comfortable with the change and noted that the idea that relievers need set roles is often "overplayed."
"It doesn't matter for me," the left-hander said. "Whenever my name is called I'll be ready, I told them. All of us take a lot of pride in getting the ball to [Melancon], it doesn't matter the inning or whatever."
So, as the Pirates move beyond a successful Opening Day, there are already some interesting storylines to follow. They constructed a roster around a familiar core group of high-performing, talented players. Surrounding that group, they've added versatility and veteran presence. Hurdle will have three left-handers in the bullpen and speed and defense on the bench. It looks to be a roster designed to exploit pitching matchups, maximize defensive flexibility and create runs through an aggressive running game. It's the type of team that will lean less on the power game and a deep starting staff and more on the optimization of both their lineup and bullpen according to sabermetric principles. It's the type of team that in some ways will be Hurdle's biggest challenge, as he'll be asked again this year to fine-tune his tactics to incorporate new approaches.
Sunday was our first look at this year's new mixture of the new and familiar. As the games start piling up and the test of the season begins, we'll learn more about this team. Hurdle, for one, is looking forward to the start of the six-month grind.
"Opening Day is great. It has a lot of meaning, so many people gravitate to it. I love it. And I'll be the first one to tell you, I'll be the happiest guy in camp when it's over. Because then we get to go back and take on things at a more normal pace."