Finally. Opening Day. Better yet, two Opening Days. We have three games on Sunday and 12 on Monday — it will be glorious.
Whether you root for a team with big hopes for this season or one that is years away from contention, there’s just something about that first game of the new year.
To celebrate the start of a new baseball season, here’s one thing to watch for in each contest — along with a can’t-miss prediction for every Opening Day game on this year’s schedule:
Joe Girardi has indicated that catcher Gary Sanchez will bat second, an interesting and unconventional move. I like the idea — stats analysts actually suggest batting your best hitter second for the most optimal lineup — but it’s certainly rare for a catcher to hit in that spot. Girardi isn’t really doing it for that reason, but rather to get an alternating lefty-righty order with Brett Gardner, Sanchez, Greg Bird and Matt Holliday. We’ll see if it lasts; the last catcher to hit second on a regular basis was Jason Kendall in 2010.
Prediction: Rays 3, Yankees 2. Archer fans 11 in seven innings as he returns to 2015 form.
Coming off a disappointing first season of a six-year, $206.5 million deal, Zack Greinke’s fastball velocity in spring training has been about 2 mph slower than his radar readings of 2016. New GM Mike Hazen says he isn’t concerned, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned.
To be fair, Greinke is a guy who relies more on movement and command than velocity, and his 2016 numbers were sunk by a few disastrous outings, including a nine-run blowup against the Red Sox, a five-homer game in September against the Dodgers and a seven-run, three-homer loss to the Rockies on Opening Day.
Prediction: Giants 5, Diamondbacks 2. MadBum homers and gets the win.
The Cardinals scored just two runs off him in three games against Jon Lester last season, but the highlight here will be Dexter Fowler playing against his old teammates after signing a big deal with the Cardinals. It may take Cubs fans a while to realize that the Jon Jay/Albert Almora Jr. platoon in center field isn’t going to come close to replicating Fowler’s .393 OBP.
Prediction: Cubs 4, Cardinals 1. Who needs David Ross? Lester is just fine without his personal catcher.
Noah Syndergaard shot out of the gates looking like a cross between Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez and a certain superhero, posting a 1.87 ERA through his first 10 starts last season. He wasn’t quite as dominant the rest of the way, with a 3.00 ERA over his final 20 starts. There are obvious reasons to expect a better season, however, starting with a .334 BABIP allowed, the fourth highest of any qualified starter. He had the highest average fastball velocity of any starter, but the key to him becoming a Cy Young winner is making that fastball a little less hittable — batters hit .283 against it. One thing we do know: He’s ready for Opening Day.
Prediction: Mets 5, Braves 0. Syndergaard dominates with seven shutout innings, while Yoenis Cespedes hits a two-run homer in the first.
Stephen Strasburg gets the start over Max Scherzer due to Scherzer’s stress fracture in the lower knuckle of his right ring finger (he should be ready to start the season’s third game), but the player to watch is Bryce Harper, who looked locked in and healthy in spring training with eight home runs as he seeks a return to his 2015 level of dominance. He’s enjoyed Opening Day before: He homered the past two openers and hit two in 2013.
Prediction: Nationals 7, Marlins 2. Harper does, indeed, go yard … twice.
This is just the second time the Pirates have played in Fenway Park, the first coming back in 2005. They’ll arrive with a new-look outfield as Andrew McCutchen moves to right field, Starling Marte moves to center and Gregory Polanco moves from right to left. Better defense will help them get back into the playoff chase, but there’s no denying they need a bigger season from Gerrit Cole, as he went from a 2.60 ERA to a 3.88 mark in just 20 starts. Cole has said he plans to mix in his changeup more, a pitch he threw just 5 percent of the time last year.
Prediction: Pirates 6, Red Sox 3. Red Sox Nation panics as Porcello gets knocked out in the fourth.
It’s been a rough spring for the Rockies, with injuries to Ian Desmond, David Dahl and Tom Murphy, and Chad Bettis landing on the 60-day DL as he undergoes chemotherapy for testicular cancer. They’ve had good starts in recent seasons, so staying close in April will be important. It won’t help that they have 16 games in the month against the Dodgers, Giants and Nationals.
Prediction: Brewers 8, Rockies 7 (10). Ryan Braun with the walk-off homer in extra innings.
A rematch of last year’s Game When Zach Britton Didn’t Pitch, the Orioles are looking for Kevin Gausman to develop into an ace-level starter as he makes his first Opening Day start. He pitched a lot like one in the second half last year, going 8-6 with a 3.10 ERA after the All-Star break. One key was throwing his splitter a little more often, a pitch batters hit just .182 against with a 43 percent strikeout rate. With Chris Tillman starting the season on the DL and a shaky rotation otherwise, the Orioles need good halves from Gausman.
Prediction: Orioles 3, Blue Jays 2. Zach Britton with the save.
What to look for in this game? Probably a Dodgers win. They’ve beaten the Padres the last nine times Clayton Kershaw started, including both times in 2016, when Kershaw didn’t allow a run in 16 innings.
Prediction: Dodgers 8, Padres 1. Corey Seager begins his push for MVP with a double, homer and four RBIs.
Miguel Cabrera vs. any pitcher is always good theater, but he’s had good success against Jose Quintana, hitting .349/.440/.605 in 50 career plate appearances. In fact, Cabrera has also hit an impressive .304/.429/.587 against the now-departed Chris Sale. He has hit .447 with five home runs in 47 at-bats against Corey Kluber. This just in: Miguel Cabrera is good.
Prediction: White Sox 5, Tigers 2. The White Sox go over .500 for the only time all season.
Fascinating factoid: The Royals went a combined 41-16 against the Twins, Tigers and White Sox in 2016, which means they went 40-65 against everyone else. The Royals rewarded Danny Duffy with a five-year, $65 million extension in the offseason — the one potential free agent they’ve signed — with Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar all heading into free agency at season’s end. If this last hurrah with this group is to end on a happy note, they’ll have to beat up on the Twins once again — and some of the good teams.
Prediction: Royals 6, Twins 4. Robbie Grossman drops two fly balls, and the Royals score four in the eighth.
Fool your friends and win a bet: True or false, Scott Feldman has made more than $50 million in his big league career. Answer: True!
Prediction: Phillies 7, Reds 3. The Phillies hit three home runs as the Reds set an early pace to break their MLB record from last season for most home runs allowed.
Yeah, this matchup will work. An interesting thing to watch with Yu Darvish is his pitch repertoire. Pitching coach Doug Brocail has been trying to get Darvish to simplify his arsenal, reportedly sticking with his fastball, sinker, slider and “an off-speed pitch to be named or tried later,” according to MLB.com.
Most notably, he ditched his splitter early in spring training, with the apparent worry it caused too much stress on his elbow. Also absent from that list of pitches is his cutter, which I’ve mentioned in the past is a pitch Darvish should dump as batters have hit over .300 and slugged over .500 against it since 2013.
Two pitchers with a lot to prove after struggling with both injuries and results in 2016. Felix Hernandez looked pretty good in spring training, with all the reports from Mariners camp pointing to a motivated Hernandez acknowledging he’ll have to change his approach. We’ll see what that actually means, because pitching to more contact is a nice theory, but strikeout rate correlates much better with success. If hitters have learned to lay off that two-strike changeup that dives below the knees, that means fastball command to the corners becomes more crucial. The possibility that fewer low strikes will be called won’t help Hernandez either — or Dallas Keuchel, for that matter.
Predictions: Astros 4, Mariners 3. George Springer homers twice off King Felix.
Oh, hello, Mike Trout.
Prediction: A’s 6, Angels 2. Trout draws four walks, but Khris Davis homers and drives in three runs.