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Chen won't forget first Opening Day start

Chen won't forget first Opening Day start

Nothing quite prepares you for pitching on Opening Day for the first time. Not 19 years of pitching as a professional, not 14 years in the Major Leagues.

I mean, I'd been around the National League and the American League with 10 different teams. I'd been relieving, I'd been starting, I'd been a left-handed specialist, I'd been a long man in the bullpen. But guys like me don't get picked for Opening Day very often. That honor usually goes to a staff ace, a big winner, a famous name.

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But in 2011, I had a pretty decent year. I led the Royals in wins for the second straight year and my ERA was under 4.00. So when the time came, Ned Yost picked me to start the 2012 season in Anaheim. That was a big first, a big thrill and a big responsibility.

Ned was very nice. He told the reporters that he chose me because I was reliable and steady and knew how to get a game to the bullpen while we were within striking range of a victory.

When you think about it, I was pretty fortunate to still be pitching. I had to have Tommy John surgery in 2007 and I didn't pitch at all in '08. Then I joined the Panama team for the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and while I was training, I asked the Royals to give me a look. Fortunately, they signed me to a Minor League deal and I was able to work my way back. But it wasn't easy.

Now all the hard work had paid off. I was an Opening Day starter, and I wanted to enjoy it as much as possible. So I brought my parents, Jose and Luisa Chen, in from Panama. Mary, then my fiancée and now my wife, was there. I also brought my two daughters, Gabriela and Adriana, to Anaheim. I wanted my family to share my joy. How many times might this happen? Baseball is a team game, but for many reasons, this was a very special day for me.

I was very anxious. I had the honor of leading my teammates into the first game of the year. I felt like I had a lot of responsibility on my shoulders because I wanted to do well, not just for me, but for them. I was 34, but we had a young team coming up, and I wanted to do my best for them, show them what a veteran could do.

So there were more than 44,000 people pouring into Angel Stadium. I was a little bit nervous, not really for myself, but because I knew my teammates were depending on me. And I wanted my family to be proud of me.

It's funny, because I can remember details about every other Opening Day I had been to, but not this one. I don't know who sang the national anthem. I don't remember seeing the flag on the field. I don't remember if planes made a flyover. All I wanted to do was be sure I was ready to pitch and to focus on the game.

The Angels had a very good team and I'd been matched up with Jered Weaver. This was the first year that Albert Pujols was with the Angels so that was really big. All I wanted to do was give my team a chance to win on the first day.

As it turned out, I was able to handle Pujols. The first time up, I threw him a cutter and he lined into a double play, and the next time, he fouled out. I was pretty much able to stay with Weaver pitch for pitch. Weaver was on. We tried to get to him and just couldn't. We opened up the third inning with two straight singles, but then he struck out Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer in order. That tells you how sharp Weaver was that day.

And all I could do was match him. I did my job. There was still no score when Ned pulled me out after six innings. The Angels got three hits off me and I didn't walk anybody, so I was pretty pleased. The defense played great, and I was able to get the game to the bullpen. The Angels broke the game open with five runs in the eighth, and that turned out to be the final, 5-0. Weaver pitched eight innings and struck out 10, the first win of 20 he'd get that year.

We weren't able to get the win that day. But I was able to bring my family in for one of the biggest days of my career. They could see the rewards of all the work I had done and all the support they had given me over the years.

I was very proud of the way I pitched for my team, I was very proud of the way we played that game and it's going to be in my memory for the rest of my life. I was an Opening Day starter. That's something no one can ever take away from me.

Bruce Chen is a pitcher for the Kansas City Royals. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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