There’s no greater honor for a baseball pitcher than to be named his team’s opening day starter.
It’s an assignment that took on even more meaning than usual for the Baltimore Orioles’ Bruce Zimmermann on Monday.
When he took the mound against the Milwaukee Brewers, he became the first Baltimore area native to start a home opener for the Orioles in the 30-year history of Camden Yards. The 27-year-old left-hander made it an occasion to remember by throwing four shutout innings before giving way to the bullpen in his team’s 2-0 win.
“It’s a dream come true, to be honest,” Zimmermann told MLB.com before his big day. “It’ll probably be better than my (major league) debut. I really can’t put into words how excited I am for the opportunity.”
Zimmermann, a former fifth-round draft pick now in his second season with the Orioles, is a product of traditional Division II power the University of Mount Olive. He is one of more than 30 players with state ties to earn a spot on a major league opening day roster.
It’s a group that includes two of the highest-profile free agents to sign with new teams this spring — former NC State ace Carlos Rodon and Concord native Corey Seager.
Rodon signed a two-year, $44-million deal with the San Francisco Giants after spending his first seven seasons with the Chicago White Sox.
His debut in the Bay Area was an impressive one. His first pitch was clocked at 97 mph and his 89th and final throw checked in at 98 mph. In between, the left-hander from Holly Springs struck out 12 in five shutout innings of a 2-1 loss to the Miami Marlins.
“Carlos was just electric,” his manager Gabe Kapler said after the game. “It was kind of inspiring in the dugout with all of the energy and enthusiasm he had delivering each pitch.”
Seager, a shortstop who signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Northwest Cabarrus High School in Concord, is also off to a strong start with the Texas Rangers. He had seven hits in his first 16 at-bats with four runs scored after signing a 10-year, $325 million contract that surpassed Alex Rodriguez’s $252 million deal in 2000 as the largest in team history.
Seager’s older brother Kyle, who played college ball at North Carolina, announced his retirement this winter after 11 seasons as a member of the Seattle Mariners.
Even without him, the Tar Heels boast the largest contingent of current major leaguers among state schools. There are currently six UNC players on active rosters. That includes Colorado Rockies closer Daniel Bard, Oakland Athletics outfielder Skye Bolt, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zac Gallen, Cincinnati Reds third baseman Colin Moran, Marlins catcher Jacob Stallings and Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Trent Thornton.
NC State, East Carolina and UNC Wilmington are all represented by three big leaguers.
Besides Rodon, the Wolfpack contingent consists of St. Louis Cardinals catcher Andrew Knizner and Dodgers shortstop Trey Turner.
ECU boasts a trio of pitchers — Jharel Cotton of the Minnesota Twins, Jeff Hoffman of the Reds and Shawn Armstrong of the Marlins, while the UNCW alumni group features Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers, Dodgers pitcher Evan Phillips and Los Angeles Angels pitcher Austin Warren.
Like Zimmermann, Cardinals reliever Kodi Whitley is a product of Mount Olive, the only other state school with multiple major leaguers.
Among the others representing North Carolina colleges are pitcher Marcus Stroman from Duke, a late free agent signing of the Chicago Cubs; Wake Forest first baseman Gavin Sheets of the cross-town rival White Sox; Campbell and Louisburg Junior College outfielder Cedric Mullins of the Baltimore Orioles; Appalachian State pitcher Jeffrey Springs of the Tampa Bay Rays; Western Carolina pitcher Greg Holland of the Rangers; and Belmont Abbey pitcher Emilio Pagan of the Twins.
Two of the most accomplished major leaguers from North Carolina didn’t play college ball in the state.
Pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who is in his third season with the Diamondbacks, has won 119 career games. The South Caldwell High graduate has three World Series rings to his credit as a member of the Giants and was named the MVP of the Fall Classic in 2014.
Second baseman Whit Merrifield, a product of Davie County High in Mocksville who won a national championship at South Carolina, is a two-time All-Star who has led the American League in stolen bases three times as a member of the Kansas City Royals.
Others with North Carolina ties include Twins pitchers Chris Archer (Clayton) and Bailey Ober (Huntersville), Pirates pitcher Bryce Wilson (Hillsborough), Giants pitchers Alex Wood (Charlotte) and Zack Littell (Mebane) and Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh (Cullowhee).
Reds second baseman Max Schrock (Raleigh) is also on the Reds roster but started the season on the 60-day injured list.