World Series rematch, duel of AL aces highlight Sunday's MLB openers
Opening Day is nearly upon us. The 2016 MLB season will commence on Sunday, April 3 with a trio of games—the first time in MLB history that the season has opened with three Sunday games. The action is capped off by a rematch of last year’s World Series as the Mets take on the Royals in Kansas City—the first time in MLB history that the previous season’s two Fall Classic combatants will meet again on Opening Day
That's not the only compelling game of the day, however. The opener features a pair of division rivals who had the two best records in baseball last year, and the middle game features another pair of division rivals and arguably the day’s best pitching matchup.
Cardinals at Pirates, 1:05 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Cardinals and Pirates had the two best records in baseball in 2015, winning 100 and 98 games, respectively, but preseason projections have them both chasing the Cubs (who won 97 games last year) coming into the season. By opening the year against one another, St. Louis and Pittsburgh are being thrown directly into the fire. These two teams will meet 18 more times this season, including the conclusion of this series on Tuesday and Wednesday and the final three games of the season in St. Louis, but every one of those matchups will be crucial: These two teams have both made the playoffs in each of the last three years and were separated by just one game in last year’s standings.
Pitching Matchup: Adam Wainwright (2–1, 1.61 ERA) vs. Francisco Liriano (12–7, 3.38 ERA)
Wainwright missed most of last season due to an Achilles tendon injury suffered in his fourth start, appearing exclusively in relief in the regular season and playoffs after his Sept. 30 return, which came in Pittsburgh. This will thus be the 34-year-old’s first start against the Pirates since September 2014 and his first regular-season start since April 25 of last year.
For the Pirates, the lefthanded Liriano draws the Opening Day assignment because ace Gerrit Cole got a late start to spring training due to inflammation on his right side. Now 32, Liriano has been a key part of the Pirates’ success over the last three seasons, rejuvenating his career under pitching coach Ray Searage and posting a 3.26 ERA with 543 strikeouts in 510 innings over those three seasons.
New Faces: Pittsburgh’s corner infielders will both be making their Pirates debut, with David Freese, a late-winter signing, at third base and John Jaso at first base. A former catcher and outfielder, Jaso has played just five innings at first base in the regular season in his major league career and has looked shaky at the position in spring training.
With the lefty Liriano on the mound for Pittsburgh, this game could also see 36-year-old All-Star Matt Holliday make his major league debut at first base as part of the Cardinals’ complex platoon with lefty first baseman Matt Adams and righthanded outfielder Tommy Pham. Holliday was drafted as a third baseman but hadn’t played the infield since 2000 before drawing eight starts at first base this spring. The Cardinals will also have a new name at shortstop, with Jedd Gyorko filling in for the injured Jhonny Peralta (torn thumb ligament) as well as Peralta's would-be replacement, Ruben Tejada (who will start the season on the disabled list due to a left quad strain).
New faces in the bullpens include 33-year-old Korean setup man Seung-hwan Oh (who will make his major league debut if he appears in this game) for the Cardinals, and Neftali Feliz and 38-year-old Ryan Vogelsong (who lost the fifth starter’s job to Juan Nicasio this spring) for the Pirates.
Blue Jays at Rays, 4:05 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The Blue Jays broke the longest active playoff drought in the four major sports leagues last year by going 43–18 (.705) down the stretch, the second-best record in baseball after July 28. This year, they return with their historically-significant offense not only intact, but also with deadline addition Troy Tulowitzki and intended 2015 leftfielder Michael Saunders healthy and in place for Opening Day. The Rays, meanwhile, were second-to-last in the AL in runs scored last year and have turned over several spots in their lineup with an eye toward more offense. But the best reason to watch them on Opening Day remains the pitching.
Pitching Matchup: Marcus Stroman (4–0, 1.67 ERA) vs. Chris Archer (12–13, 3.23 ERA)
This is the best pitching matchup of the day. Archer and Stroman are both tremendously talented and charismatic young players who are poised to be among the top pitchers in the AL this year. Archer, who has taken on a role as one of the faces of MLB heading into his age-27 season, possesses what is widely considered the best slider in the game and finished fifth in the AL Cy Young voting last year after striking out 252 men in 212 innings and posting a 2.90 FIP. Stroman, meanwhile, missed most of 2015 due to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee suffered in spring training, but he used the time off to finish his degree at Duke, then returned ahead of schedule to dominate in late September and surpass the since-departed David Price as the team’s No. 1 starter in the postseason.
The expectations are high for both righthanders this year. Archer should be back in the Cy Young mix this year, and one scout I talked to this spring believes the 5’8” Stroman—entering what he hopes will be his first full major league season—could be as well.
New Faces: Designated hitter Corey Dickerson, first baseman Logan Morrison and shortstop Brad Miller give the Rays three new lefty bats to take on the righthanded Stroman, with righty-swinging Steve Pearce lurking on the bench for a potential late-game matchup with Brett Cecil, Toronto's top lefty reliever. With Brad Boxberger opening the season on the disabled list following core muscle surgery, the Rays seem set to give converted starter Alex Colome the first crack at closing games, though Danny Farquhar, who briefly closed for the Mariners in 2013, has also impressed this spring.
Saunders nearly qualifies as a new face for the Blue Jays given that he appeared in just nine games for the Jays last year due to a left knee injury. In reality, the new Jays who might appear in this game all lurk in the bullpen, with former Nationals closer Drew Storen setting up sophomore Roberto Osuna. The relief corps also has two former Athletics in swing man Jesse Chavez and middle reliever Arnold Leon, as well as Rule 5 pick Joe Biagini (a former starter out of the Giants’ system) and repurposed veteran starter Gavin Floyd.
Mets at Royals, 8:37 p.m. ET, ESPN
Regular-season World Series rematches have only become possible since interleague play was introduced in 1997, and Opening Day World Series rematches have only been possible since season-long interleague was adopted in 2013. Nonetheless, this is special. Not only are we getting an immediate rematch of last year’s World Series, which the Royals won in five games, but we’re also getting the same pitching matchup as Games 1 and 5, with Matt Harvey taking on Edinson Volquez. Both of those games, incidentally, were won by the Royals in extra innings after ninth-inning comebacks.
Pitching Matchup: Matt Harvey (13–8, 2.71 ERA) vs. Edinson Volquez (13–9, 3.55 ERA)
Harvey’s participation in this game was briefly in doubt when he was scratched from his exhibition start on Monday due to a blood clot in his bladder, but he made a two-inning tuneup start on Wednesday and remains scheduled to take the ball. Still, that sequence puts him on irregular rest, giving him three days off since his last game appearance. Indeed, the latter part of Harvey’s spring training did not go according to plan. After throwing four strong innings on March 13, he gave up six runs in his next turn on March 24, throwing 86 pitches in just three innings of work. Harvey said he was “out of whack mechanically” in that outing, but the blood clot issue turned his next scheduled appearance into Wednesday’s abbreviated start in which he gave up a three-run home run in the first inning.
It’s unclear what the Mets can expect from Harvey in this game, though I suspect they’d be happy with five strong innings. Volquez, by comparison, will work on five days' rest, having worked five solid innings in his final spring start on Monday.
New Faces: The most notable arrivals on these two teams are on the Mets, who have a new middle-infield combination of second baseman Neil Walker and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. The latter of those two missed a significant portion of camp due to a strained patella tendon in his left knee, sitting out 17 days, but he returned to action on Monday.
With Jarrod Dyson on the disabled list nursing a strained oblique, 25-year-old lefty Reymond Fuentes could draw the start in rightfield for the Royals. Fuentes last appeared in the majors for the Padres in 2013, but he had a strong showing in Triple A last year and has had a tremendous spring.
In the bullpens, the Royals have brought back former closer Joakim Soria in a setup role and added former Mets starter Dillon Gee as a long man. New York, meanwhile, has added lefty Antonio Bastardo to its endgame.
World Series Carryover: There was some scuttlebutt during the final week of spring training that the Royals may try to retaliate for Noah Syndergaard brushing back Alcides Escobar with a high-90s fastball on the first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series. That pitch was a clear message meant to intimidate the Royals and establish the inside of the plate, and Syndergaard fanned the flames after the game by saying, “If they have a problem with me throwing inside, then they can meet me 60 feet, six inches away.” But Syndergaard, who will start the second game of this series on Tuesday, won’t come to bat in the AL park, and Royals manager Ned Yost threw water on the story on Tuesday, saying, “Our retribution was winning the World Series,” a sentiment echoed by several of his players. To that end, prior to this game, the Mets will have to sit through a ceremony honoring last year’s world champions, including the raising of the championship flag.
One carryover we can expect to see from last year’s World Series, however, will be the Mets’ outfield alignment. Look for manager Terry Collins to start slick-fielding Juan Lagares in Kauffman Stadium’s expansive centerfield, shifting Yoenis Cespedes to left and Michael Conforto to designated hitter. That was the lineup Collins rolled out in Game 2 of the World Series after Cespedes’s first-inning misplay in Game 1 resulted in an inside-the-park home run for Escobar. Cespedes ended up playing just five of 22 defensive innings in Kansas City's centerfield during the series.