11 things to look forward to on Opening Day

March 28th, 2021
Tom Forget / MLB.com

Opening Day is almost here! It's the real first day of spring, when every single baseball team emerges from their offseason slumber and shakes off the loosey-goosey vibes of Spring Training to play real, meaningful baseball.

It’s a magical day, made for shirking work or school and skipping out on responsibilities to gorge on hours upon hours of baseball. Because while Spring Training is pleasant, it’s not the same.

So with real baseball returning, here are the 11 things I’m most looking forward to when the regular season opens on Thursday -- the things that I've been missing most deeply over the long, cold winter months. And, of course, if I left out your favorite player, it's not because at some point one has to stop writing, it's definitely because I hate them specifically.

1. Trey Mancini returns

Orioles at Red Sox, 2:10 p.m. ET

Last spring, Orioles slugger Mancini came down with flu-like symptoms and discovered he had a low iron count in his blood. He and his girlfriend thought it could be celiac disease. Instead, Mancini was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer and things much more serious than baseball occupied his time.

This year, with his cancer beaten, Mancini is back. He was given a standing ovation from the crowd when he stepped to the plate for the first time in Spring Training, and the reaction from every single baseball fan in the world should make that pale in comparison on Opening Day.

Some things are bigger than baseball, or rivalries, or what happens in the standings -- and this is one of them. Welcome back.

2. Francisco Lindor takes the field in a Mets uniform

Mets at Nationals, 7:09 p.m. ET

If you’ve been following along all winter, maybe you’re tired of hearing about Lindor on the Mets. But here are a few things to consider:

1. Shortstops -- especially superstar-level shortstops that can hit dingers and field their position with aplomb -- are traded less frequently than a member of r/WallStreetBets giving up on Gamestop. (This joke is extremely timely.)

2. This is Lindor we’re talking about! He was so excited to be in New York that he showed up to Spring Training dressed like he was in "Coming to America."

With a shock of Mets-blue hair, Lindor spent Spring Training bashing outta-sight home runs and showcasing that sterling glove up the middle. Now he'll be doing it for real -- and sure, it doesn't hurt that he'll be playing in what is likely the premiere pitching matchup of the day as Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer square off.

(You'll also want to see Nolan Arenado take the field in his new uni against the Reds at 4:10 p.m. ET. That is, unless you're a Rockies fan, of course.)

3. Mike Trout vs. Luis Robert

White Sox at Angels, 10:05 p.m. ET

You want to see an outfield battle of the ages? We have it here. In one corner, there's Mike Trout, the king of baseball, the man who could finish his career with the title of the best player ever to take the field. (If he doesn't get that, he'll at least wind up with the title of thickest neck this side of Gaston.) That's reason enough to tune in.

But in the other corner, there's Chicago's loaded-with-tools youngster, Luis Robert. Last year, he showcased power, speed, defense and the ability to do the unbelievable that was reminiscent of when Trout first showed up on the scene.

Who knows what the future holds, but this could be a matchup to watch for years to come.

4. Clayton Kershaw back on the mound for the first time since the World Series

Dodgers at Rockies, 4:10 p.m. ET

With Kershaw coming off a 2019 season that was his worst since he was a 20-year-old rookie (worst is relative here, considering he had a 3.03 ERA), some dared think he had lost his title of staff ace to Walker Buehler. Well, all Kershaw did last year was post his lowest ERA since 2016, and with a few more innings, would have posted the third-best WHIP in the Majors. Oh yeah, he then took home the one trophy that had forever eluded him, as the Dodgers won the World Series against the Rays. Suffice to say, Kershaw is back and is set to make his ninth Opening Day start awash in the glow of World Series success.

Not only that, he'll be going up against a Rockies team that no longer has Arenado in the lineup. So, if ever there was a time for Kershaw to dominate, perhaps even pulling off his second career no-hitter (and just the second on Opening Day and second at Coors Field), this could be the day. Of course, it is Coors Field, so there's just as good a chance that the ball flies all over the park and he's done after 2 1/3 innings.

5. Fernando Tatis Jr.!

D-backs at Padres, 4:10 p.m. ET

Look into the brain of any baseball fan and it's a lot like that dog in the old "Beggin' Strips" ad. The only difference is our brains are screaming, "TatisTatisTatisTatis!" ad infinitum.

It's not hard to fathom why. With the pink wristbands that have already sparked a fashion revolution for youth ballplayers and his long, bleach-blond locks, Tatis makes a statement even as he prepares in the on-deck circle. And when he steps to the plate or races to field a grounder hit in the gap, you can feel the air crackling with potential in the way only a handful of athletes like Ken Griffey Jr. and Michael Jordan have had.

You better believe almost every MLB.TV account is going to be pointed to the Padres every night this year.

6. Shane Bieber's Cy Young Award follow-up

Indians at Tigers, 1:10 p.m. ET

Last season, Bieber stepped out from the other Bieber's shadow as he decimated the opposition to the tune of a 1.63 ERA and a 14.2 K/9. Those are video-game numbers. So, while the Tigers have a promising farm system and the team's starting pitching will be exciting with arms like Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize on the roster, the lineup is ... less so.

Last season, Bieber pitched 14 2/3 innings against the Tigers and racked up 21 K's while giving up only three runs across two starts. Considering that he struck out 14 in a six-inning start on Opening Day last year, we may want to use that as a starting point for what he could do on Thursday.

7. Ke'Bryan Hayes' first Opening Day start

Pirates at Cubs, 2:20 p.m. ET

The Pirates aren't going to be very good this year. That shouldn't be a surprise considering the team has fully embraced a rebuild and traded away some of the team's best arms in hopes of stocking the farm system. Still, there's one very good reason to tune in: Hayes is the Pirates' most celebrated prospect since Andrew McCutchen -- and all he did was win an NL MVP Award and break the club's 21-year gap between postseason appearances.

A favorite to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award, Hayes hit .376 with five home runs in just 24 games last season while also showcasing a phenomenal glove at third base. There are lots of rookies worth paying attention to on Thursday -- Andrew Vaughn with the White Sox, for one -- but none can lay claim to the title of his team's best player the way Hayes already can.

8. Ronald Acuña Jr.'s celebrations

Braves at Phillies, 3:05 p.m. ET

With apologies to reigning NL MVP Award winner Freddie Freeman who will also be playing in this game, there's perhaps no more exciting player to watch than Acuña. Beyond being the very best of friends with another must-watch player in Ozzie Albies, Acuña has a legitimate chance at not only a 30-30 season, but a 40-40 one. His on-field celebrations are the kind of thing you need to show to any friends, relatives and strangers who tell you that it's better to round the bases stoically following a dinger. If seeing Acuña having a blast on the field doesn't put a smile on your face, you may need to check for a pulse.

9. Ace vs. Ace

It's one of the few problems with baseball's long and nearly-every-day schedule: It's a rare thing when two aces face off during the regular season. But Opening Day means we're getting all of the hardest fastballs, the slipperiest sliders and the most-fall-off-the-table changeups in the game.

Yeah, we've got deGrom vs. Scherzer and Kershaw taking the mound in Colorado, but also Hyun Jin Ryu battling Gerrit Cole in an AL East showdown. Yu Darvish will make his debut for the Padres, while Aaron Nola opposes the Braves' Max Fried coming off a breakout season. If you're someone who loves following Pitching Ninja on Twitter, Thursday is basically your Christmas.

10. Dingers, dingers, dingers

There's just a difference between a Spring Training home run and a regular-season one. In Spring Training, you always have to wonder if the pitcher was just getting his pitch count up, or if it was some of that fabled Florida wind.

But on Opening Day, these are all for real. Will Joey Gallo blast one to the moon? Will Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton go back to back, terrifying every pitcher in the Majors who may have to face them later this year? Will Juan Soto unravel a baseball with his swing?

The answer to all of these is ... quite likely.

11. The unexpected hero

There's always someone who comes out of nowhere and delivers a performance to remember. Last year, it was Yoenis Céspedes coming back from injury to homer as the first DH in a National League matchup. Or perhaps it was Kyle Lewis taking Justin Verlander deep -- long before we knew that Lewis was set to become the AL Rookie of the Year.

In years past, Tuffy Rhodes and Dmitri Young turned in three-homer games. Ramón Hernández hit a walk-off home run for his fourth hit of the night with the A's in 2011. Les Sweetland threw a three-hit shutout in 1930, only to finish the year with a 7.71 ERA -- the highest for a qualified starter in big league history.

Who knows who it will be this year -- Phillip Evans? Willians Astudillo? David Bote with another walk-off grand slam? Whoever it is, I can't wait. See you Thursday.