By Cliff Corcoran
March 27, 2013
A.J. Ellis and the Dodgers are trying to catch Angel Pagan and the Giants in the NL West this season.
Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports

The return of the baseball season is reason enough to get out to the ballpark, but if you're lucky enough to be within range of one of them, these are the five can't-miss series of the new season's first month, none of which overlap on the calendar or with regard to the teams involved.

April 1-3: San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers

One of the oldest and fiercest rivalries in baseball looks poised for a particularly notable year as the defending World Series champion Giants attempt to fend off the advances of the nouveau riche Dodgers in the National League West. Since July 25 of last year, Los Angeles has added Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Hanley Ramirez to its lineup, Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett and Korean import Hyun-Jin Ryu who will make his major league debut in the second game of this series, to its rotation, and closer Brandon League to its bullpen.

All those moves have allowed the Dodgers to take significant steps toward closing the eight-game gap that existed in the division standings between these two teams at the end of last season. Ramirez won't appear in this series due to a thumb injury, but there will be no shortage of star power with Matt Cain, one of last year's perfect game artists and a two-time All-Star, set to take on former Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw on Opening Day.

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April 5-7: Los Angeles Angels at Texas Rangers

Until the A's snuck past the Rangers on the final day of the 2012 season, the Angels and Rangers had combined for five straight American League West titles, forging a rivalry further stoked by unwitting exchange of players between the two teams. After grabbing starting pitcher C.J. Wilson a year ago, the latest to switch sides is Josh Hamilton, the 2010 AL MVP for the Rangers, who will be making his first appearance as a visiting player in Arlington in this series.

The Angels hope that swiping Hamilton from Texas via a five-year, $125 million deal in free agency will help close the four-game gap that separated the two teams last year. These clubs enter the season as the favorites in the AL West and figure to battle for the crown all season long. They will meet in Anaheim from April 22 to 24.

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April 8-10: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals

Coming off a miraculous 2011 World Series title, the Cardinals finished nine games behind the Reds in the NL Central last year, but they may have actually had the better team and the better season. St. Louis had a superior run differential and, in their second straight season as a wild card entry, made it deeper into the playoffs than division champion Cincinnati, returning to the National League Championship Series where they, like the Reds in the Division Series, lost to the Giants.

In the offseason, the Cardinals made a variety of subtle upgrades (Matt Carpenter at second base, Adam Wainwright being another year removed from Tommy John surgery, full seasons from rookies Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal) that they hope will result in their first division crown since 2009. The Reds, meanwhile, have improved their leadoff spot considerably with Shin-Soo Choo and, with a fully-healthy MVP candidate in Joey Votto, are positioned to repeat in the Central.

Note that Cardinals third baseman and 2011 World Series hero David Freese, who will open the season on the disabled list due to a back injury, will be eligible to return for this series. These teams will meet again in April in Cincinnati starting on the 29th.

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April 12-14: Atlanta Braves at Washington Nationals

The Nationals won more games, 98, than any other team last year, which, in combination with the Braves' loss in the inaugural wild card playoff game, distracts from the fact that Atlanta won 94 games itself last year, fewer than only three teams, including Washington.

Both teams look to be improved this year. The Nationals by virtue of the continued development and increased availability of Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, the prospect of full seasons from Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos, and the addition of Rafael Soriano to their bullpen. The Braves are better too after the addition of the Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin, to their outfield where they'll join emerging star Jason Heyward. Atlanta's strong nucleus of young players includes first baseman Freddie Freeman and starting pitcher Mike Minor, while starter Kris Medlen and shortstop Adrelton Simmons should blossom in their first full seasons in their current roles. These teams meet again in April for a four-game set in Atlanta starting on the 29th.

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April 25-28: Baltimore Orioles at Oakland A's

The Orioles and A's were the two surprise teams of the 2012 season, both making the playoffs after almost unanimous predictions that they would finish a distant last place in their respective divisions. Here they lock horns in their attempts to prove that 2012 was not a fluke. Both teams posted strong run differentials in the second half of the 2012 season, but looking at their 2013 rosters, it's hard not to wonder about Oakland's lineup or Baltimore's rotation.

Still, there is no shortage of talent on these teams, led by the A's budding superstar Yoenis Cespedes, who, now in his age-27 season, could be worth the price of admission all by himself, just as Harper and Mike Trout are in the above series involving the Nationals and Angels.

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