SEATTLE -- Two of last year’s postseason teams clash for what could be another epic showdown when the Guardians visit the Mariners for Opening Day on Thursday night at T-Mobile Park.
Seattle had the best of Cleveland last year, winning six of their seven matchups in a home-and-home split down the stretch. But most of those games were incredibly close, headlined by their final matchup in what became a weather-impacted matinee.
For these reasons, the reigning American League Central champs and the AL West hopefuls both enter their seasons with big expectations, making this matchup one of the most intriguing on the Opening Day docket.
When is the game and how to watch?
What are the lineups?
Unlike last year, there are few questions when it comes to the starting nine. Maybe there will be debate over who will be at first and who will DH between Josh Bell and Josh Naylor. With Oscar Gonzalez’s spring struggles and Will Brennan’s strong camp, there could be slight consideration in having Brennan in the starting lineup. However, it seems we can already project who will be where.
Seattle used a whopping 129 lineups last year, and that diversity will continue in 2023. That said, the top three will probably be the usual suspects on most nights, beginning with the regular-season opener.
Who are the starting pitchers?
For the fourth consecutive year, Shane Bieber takes the ball. This stretch will be just one Opening Day start shy of tying the longest such streak by a pitcher in Cleveland history, which is held by Corey Kluber (2015-19) and Stan Coveleski (1917-21). After Kluber was traded to the Rangers at the end of '19, Bieber began his reign as Opening Day starter in '20, at age 25, becoming the youngest pitcher to take on the assignment for Cleveland since a 23-year-old CC Sabathia in '04.
Bieber spent most of the 2022 season playing catch-up. He missed the majority of the prior year due to shoulder problems and he struggled to feel comfortable with his delivery, while a lot of the attention went to his decreased velocity. He said it took him until the end of the year to start to feel better, despite his continued success. Bieber feels stronger in his delivery after this spring, so he’ll look to settle in right away.
Luis Castillo gets the nod for the third time in his career and his first in Seattle. Though he didn’t have big wow moments in Spring Training the way some of his rotation mates did, Castillo’s regularly shown in his brief time with the Mariners that he’s wired for big moments.
How might the bullpens line up?
Emmanuel Clase will be back to work the late innings for the Guardians after having the best season of all AL relievers in ’22. Either James Karinchak and Trevor Stephan could turn into Cleveland’s setup man. Eli Morgan, Nick Sandlin and Enyel De Los Santos all return to help fill the middle innings, while Tim Herrin will replace an injured Sam Hentges as the lefty out of the ‘pen. Hunter Gaddis was supposed to be Cleveland's multi-inning relief option, but will likely have to move to the rotation to replace Triston McKenzie.
Cleveland will be without its No. 2 starter McKenzie to start the season. On Monday, an MRI revealed a teres major muscle strain. He'll be shut down from throwing for at least two weeks and may need up to eight weeks to return to play. The Guardians are also missing lefty reliever Hentges, who is working back from inflammation in his throwing shoulder. And righty Cody Morris (right shoulder/back soreness) is expected to take longer than Hentges to return to competition, as he’s dealing with the same issues that have plagued him the last few years.
Who’s hot and not?
One of the biggest things the Guardians needed to see this spring was that center fielder Myles Straw made offensive adjustments over the winter that could help him be more of a contributor in 2023. So far, so good. Straw was more aggressive at the plate, going 11-for-31 (.355) with four doubles, one homer and six strikeouts in Cactus play. On the other side, Bieber had as impressive of a spring as any hurler could ask for. He gave up four runs in five starts with 25 strikeouts and just two walks in 23 1/3 innings.
As far as the “not” category, both Gonzalez and Mike Zunino struggled throughout camp. Gonzalez started to make better contact toward the end of the Cactus schedule, but he hasn’t quite resembled the hitter he was for the Guardians last season. Zunino went just 4-for-28 (.143) with one homer.
Julio Rodríguez wanted to regain his timing after the World Baseball Classic, and it appears that his mission is accomplished. The same could be said for Teoscar Hernández, who hit a massive homer over the batter’s eye on Thursday. Jarred Kelenic has cooled some but he was still easily the Mariners’ top spring performer. As for who’s not, Crawford is still trying to find himself at the plate, though he’s been dealing with a minor issue after fouling a ball off his foot.
Having one ace to consistently turn to is commonplace in Northeast Ohio, as Bieber is preparing for his fourth consecutive Opening Day start after Kluber took the previous five openers and Justin Masterson handled the three before Kluber. The last time Cleveland had different starters in three consecutive season openers was 2009 (Cliff Lee), '10 (Jake Westbrook) and '11 (Roberto Hernández).
The club will be celebrating a new rafter ceremony for the first time in 21 years after ending its postseason drought.