By Cliff Corcoran
The Major League Baseball season started last night with the Astros' easy 8-2 win over the Rangers but the proper Opening Day, featuring 12 games and 24 teams (only the Orioles, Rays, Indians and Blue Jays have to wait until Tuesday to start), is today. The Giants-Dodgers matchup in Los Angeles at 4:10 pm ET, which will find Matt Cain taking the hill against Clayton Kershaw, undoubtedly sets up as the best game of the day, but it’s not the only one worth watching. Here’s a quick look at all 12 of Monday’s Opening Day contests (all times Eastern).
Red Sox @ Yankees, 1:05 pm, Jon Lester vs. CC Sabathia
This could be the first season since 1993 that both of these teams fall short of the playoffs. Even die-hard fans can be forgiven if their clubs seem unrecognizable with Boston's David Ortiz and New York's Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson all opening the season on the disabled list and long-time Fenway Park favorite Kevin Youklis now a clean-shaven Yankee. The most intriguing newcomer to watch is Boston’s rookie leftfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., who forced his way onto the Red Sox’ roster by hitting .419/.507/.613 in camp and was one of the sensations of spring training. With the Yankees' questionable playoff chances, the opportunity to see Mariano Rivera, who is entering his final season, pitch in a bunting-draped Yankee Stadium is a valuable one.
Marlins @ Nationals, 1:05 pm, Ricky Nolasco vs. Stephen Strasburg
The Nationals and Marlins are expected to be the best and worst teams, respectively, in the National League this season, giving this game an even larger disparity in term of the outlooks of the two teams than Sunday night’s Rangers-Astros matchup. The Marlins greatly resemble the Astros with their bare-bones roster of low-ceiling youngsters and veteran castoffs and their rookie manager, but Miami has one thing Houston doesn't: a budding superstar in 23-year-old Giancarlo Stanton. Mix in the 24-year-old Strasburg, a popular pre-season Cy Young pick, and 20-year-old Nationals leftfielder Bryce Harper, and no other game on Monday has a better concentration of elite young talent. If nothing else, Stanton’s at-bats against Strasburg will be must-see baseball.
Padres @ Mets, 1:10 pm, Edinson Volquez vs. Jonathon Niese
These two teams had similar records in 2012, the Padres winning 76 games and the Mets 74, but they seem to be headed in opposite directions. New York, despite its smart new front office and David Wright’s massive new extension, continues to drift toward oblivion. San Diego, however, has some compelling young talent, including first baseman Yonder Alonso (26 next Monday), centerfielder Cameron Maybin (26 on Thursday) and rookie infielder Jedd Gyorko (24), that has many in the sabermetric community touting them as a near-future contender.
Cubs @ Pirates, 1:35 pm, Jeff Samardzija vs. A.J. Burnett
The Pirates have flirted with contention in July each of the last two years. Will this be the year that they finally follow through to September? They have a true superstar in centerfielder Andrew McCutchen and an increasingly solid lineup, bolstered this year by free agent catching addition Russell Martin. Burnett, meanwhile, is coming off an impressive, career-salvaging season last year. As for the Cubs, they’ve turned the corner in their rebuild with promising young players such as shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo (both 23), catcher Welington Castillo (26 at the end of April) and Samardzija (28) in the Opening Day lineup.
Rockies @ Brewers, 2:10 pm, Jhoulys Chacin vs. Yovani Gallardo
This is the least-compelling matchup of the day, but it does mark Troy Tulowitzki’s first major league appearance since May 30 of last year. Given that a healthy Tulowitzki is easily the game’s best shortstop, that’s a major milestone.
Giants @ Dodgers, 4:10, Matt Cain vs. Clayton Kershaw
If you only watch one game today, make it this one. Heading into the 2013 season, there are four intra-division matchups which qualify as essential viewing because of the likelihood of a close finish atop the division by the two teams involved: The Angels and Rangers in the AL West, the Nationals and Braves in the NL East, the Reds and Cardinals in the NL Central, and Giants and Dodgers in the NL West. Only one of those invokes 125-years of history and involves the defending World Series champions and the team with the highest payroll in baseball. That’s San Francisco and Los Angeles, which also happens to be the only of the four taking place this week, making it my series to watch for Opening Week.
If you’re only going to watch one game in this series, watch this one with a matchup of two of the game’s best pitchers. Kershaw, who is reportedly on the verge of signing the richest pitching contract in history, breaking Justin Verlander’s record that has stood since last Friday, won the 2011 NL Cy Young award and was equally deserving of last year’s award, for which he finished second. Cain finished sixth in the Cy Young voting last year and eighth in 2011. Those two pitchers and these two teams should be at the center of the action all season as Cain and Kershaw battle over another Cy Young, the Giants look to defend their title and the Dodgers look to topple their rivals and justify their recent spending spree.
Angels @ Reds, 4:10 pm, Jered Weaver vs. Johnny Cueto
Unfortunately, the second-best matchup of the day takes place at the exact same time as the best matchup of the day, despite being three time-zones away. This game in Cincinnati represents the first Opening Day interleague showdown in major league history, but it is just as relevant for the quality of the teams involved. The Reds are the defending NL Central champions and the favorite to repeat for that title, and the Angels are expected to go down to the wire for the NL West crown. This is also the second-best pitching matchup of the day as both Weaver and Cueto finished in the top four in their leagues’ respective Cy Young voting last year. This game also marks the start of Mike Trout’s eagerly anticipated sophomore season and the return of a fully-healthy Joey Votto, whose 2012 season was interrupted by knee surgery. As a result, viewers will get to watch arguably the game’s best hitter (Votto) and player (Trout) as well as the best player of the last decade in Angels’ first baseman Albert Pujols.
Tigers @ Twins, 4:10 pm. Justin Verlander vs. Vance Worley
The Tigers are a popular pre-season pick to win the American League pennant and the division-rival Twins are almost guaranteed a last-place finish in the AL Central and a loss total approaching triple digits. Minnesota rookie Aaron Hicks will make his major league debut in this game as the team’s starting centerfielder and the first pitch he sees will come out of the hand of Justin Verlander. Welcome to the Show, kid.
Royals @ White Sox, 4:10 pm, James Shields vs. Chris Sale
The Royals are a popular sleeper pick in the AL Central this year, with some expecting them to push the Tigers the way their Opening Day opponents, the White Sox, did last year. That will only happen if Kansas City's young talent blossoms, however. Injury-prone centerfielder Lorenzo Cain and leftfielder Alex Gordon turned in impressive spring training performances, but the Royals need first baseman Eric Hosmer to step up as well. As for Shields, this is the first of the roughly 33 chances he'll get this year to prove that the Wil Myers trade was worth it for the Royals. For the White Sox, the big question entering this game is whether or not 24-year-old lefty Chris Sale will have a year-after effect from his move to the starting rotation in 2011 and resulting 121-inning increase in his workload. As little as spring stats mean, it was still a bit troubling to see his strikeouts rate down and his home run rate up in spring training.
Phillies @ Braves, 7:10 pm, Cole Hamels vs. Tim Hudson
Given that the Giants-Dodgers and Angels-Reds games run simultaneously, this isolated and nationally-televised tilt between the Phillies and Braves is a solid consolation prize for those who prefer not to try to watch two games at once. The Braves won 94 games last year and should be right back in the playoff mix with the addition of the Upton brothers and potential full seasons from exciting young players such as Julio Teheran and Andrelton Simmons. The Phillies won 102 games two years ago and, despite their aging, deteriorating roster, should improve on their .500 finish from a year ago given the solid spring performances of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and outfield prospect Domonic Brown, none of whom appeared in the major leagues before late June last season. This is also an outstanding pitching matchup with Hamels, who, in the wake of Roy Halladay’s struggles, has emerged as the an ace among aces in Philadelphia going against underappreciated veteran Tim Hudson, who enters this season three wins short of 200 for his career.
Mariners @ A’s, 10:05 pm, Felix Hernandez vs. Brett Anderson
The first of 2012’s surprise playoff teams to debut this season, the A’s have their work cut out for them facing King Felix. Still, they are hoping to pick up where they left off, exceeding expectations thanks to their young rotation (with Bartolo Colon finishing his performance-enhancing drug suspension, the 25-year-old Anderson is the veteran of the group), strong bullpen, the superstar potential of leftfielder Yoenis Cespedes and manager Bob Melvin’s ability to get the most out of his roster and his players. The Mariners, meanwhile, hope to slip by Oakland thanks to big steps forward from first baseman Justin Smoak, catcher Jesus Montero and rightfielder Michael Saunders and the boost they hope to get from the imported bats of Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales. Those wishes may be overly optimistic.
Cardinals @ Diamondbacks, 10:10 pm, Adam Wainwright vs. Ian Kennedy The final game of the night brings us back to Phoenix, home of much of the Cactus League, for a matchup of two injury-plagued playoff hopefuls. The Cardinals have lost Chris Carpenter and Rafael Furcal for the season and will take the field Monday night without third baseman David Freese and closer Jason Motte and with rightfielder Carlos Beltran nursing a broken toe on his right foot. The Diamondbacks open the season without two-thirds of their intended starting outfield as free agent addition Cody Ross is on the disabled list with a calf strain and rookie centerfielder Adam Eaton will miss the first month and a half of the season due to an elbow sprain. The two starting pitchers, meanwhile, are both looking to improve on their 2012 campaigns. Kennedy saw his ERA shoot up more than a run last year relative to his Cy Young-contending 2011 performance and is looking to prove that last year's regression, not 2011, was the fluke. Wainwright, meanwhile, is now a full season removed from Tommy John surgery and hoping to return to his pre-surgery form, both to justify his new, $97.5 million extension and to get the Cardinals back to the playoffs for the third straight year.