Baseball is back. The elongated offseason meant it sort of never went away, but that was okay. Then the never-ending Spring Training made it seem like Opening Day was just a mirage amidst the split-squad games and minor league invitations.
Thankfully, Opening Day was real. It is actually happening this Thursday.
The beginning of a marathon. A 162-game grind towards October.
Opening Day is the one time in the Major League Baseball season that every team has their number one starter on the mound. Well, in theory at least. This is the chance to see aces matchup across the board.
Scour the schedule and only one team – at the time of writing, anyway – have yet to name their starter. The Los Angeles Angels are awkward like that, and it’s probably because they don’t actually have an ace. It would just be a bit cruel to throw Shohei Ohtani into that after his poor spring.
The season opens with Jon Lester against Jose Urena. Okay, that’s not all that exciting, but it’s baseball, so that’s better than the last six months of not having baseball. Lester suffered a real down year in 2017, posting a 4.33 ERA. Urena had a career year, but still had an ugly FIP over five.
Things heat up significantly around half-an-hour later in New York. A fair chunk of that heat is coming from the arm of Noah Syndergaard. The Mets’ ace was back at his unhittable best in spring. He faces St Louis’ Carlos Martinez, who was an All-Star last season and was part of a small group who threw over 200 innings.
The Cardinals and Mets are two preseason contenders for the National League wildcard. The matchup at Citi Field is not one to miss. It might be the best of the Opening Day bunch.
We head south to Texas for the next game that comes close to that pair. The divisional clash between the Astros and Rangers sees Justin Verlander face-off with Cole Hamels. These veterans have over 700 Major League starts between them.
You wouldn’t be disappointed if you were forced to watch that game. The pitchers are great and all, but it doesn’t carry quite the same value as a spectacle as the two younger arms. Not to mention that the Astros and Rangers play each other all the time anyway.
Starting a mere seven minutes later, Luis Severino gets the ball to face J.A. Happ. This matchup would be a contender for the prestigious Franchise Sports Ace-Off of the Year had Marcus Stroman been given the start. Opening Day is about star power, though, and Happ does not bring that in the same way.
Severino is a really interesting pitcher this year. The Yankees rotation has depth, and could be among the best in the game, but a lot rides on Severino being the ace he was in 2017. The Yanks’ staff could quickly look ordinary otherwise.
It’s the American League East again that throws up a gem. Chris Sale and Chris Archer are lined up for a slider-off. Sale struck out 308 batters last year (!), while only four pitchers, including Sale, struck out more hitters per nine innings than Archer.
This pair are penalised for being in the same division, though. Archer and Sale may well face each other multiple times this year. Oh, and Tampa Bay’s rebuild means it could be a complete walkover for Sale while Archer has to deal with an incomparable task featuring Mookie Betts and JD Martinez.
The final game that could steal the award features eight All-Star appearances and three Cy Young awards. Corey Kluber heads west to face Felix Hernandez at 3am UK time. Kluber won the Cy Young last year after posting a 2.25 ERA and WHIP below 0.87. Hernandez is not the pitcher he once was, but this certainly checks the star power box.
As great as Kluber is, and Hernandez has been, this isn’t quite the highlight of Opening Day.
Martinez and Syndergaard win the Franchise Sports Ace-Off of the Year.
The pair have Cy Young calibre stuff, and benefit from pitching in a game that could be pivotal come September. Divisional games are far from meaningless, it’s just hard to get excited about one of many Red Sox wins over the Rays.
The fortunate thing for MLB fans is you can watch most of these games straight through. The Cardinals and Mets leads into Sale versus Archer, which flows into the Giants versus Dodgers at midnight. Once that one is finished, it’s Kluber and Hernandez.
It’s good to have you back, baseball.