It's time to play ball! Opening Day has arrived
Return of league-wide action ushers in hope across MLB landscape
We stayed late up to watch the pageantry of the Major League Baseball season beginning in Australia. We saw the Dodgers win both games of the Opening Series at the Sydney Cricket Ground over the D-backs last weekend and then lose one to the Padres on Opening Night on Sunday at Petco Park in San Diego to open things up for 2014 stateside.
But today is a different story. Today is Opening Day throughout America, and that tells us, finally and officially, the three words we've been waiting to hear since Red Sox closer Koji Uehara struck out Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter to win the 2013 World Series on Oct. 30:
Baseball is back.
The beginning of the week brings us a slate of 13 games, all packed with intrigue and drama as the storylines of the season begin to take shape.
The first one, Cubs vs. Pirates at PNC Park at 1:05 p.m. ET, allows us to watch one of the darling teams of 2013 all over again. The Bucs sent waves of positive energy throughout Pittsburgh and the rest of baseball throughout last summer and well into the fall, and now they'll be back with the reigning National League MVP Award winner, Andrew McCutchen, and the rest of their roster against a young Cubs team that would like to make some noise in the NL Central.
"We earned the angst we all felt after Game 5 in St. Louis," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, referring to his Wild Card team's elimination in the NL Division Series. "And we are definitely looking forward to taking the next step. We're focused, healthy and hungry. We want to accomplish bigger things.
"We were asked, 'When are you going to win?' Well, we won. We are not the homecoming opponent on anyone's schedule anymore. It's time to take the next step. The men here are definitely embracing that."
Three minutes after that first pitch, the American League runners-up from a year ago begin again, with the new-look Detroit Tigers handing the ball to Justin Verlander at home against their AL Central rival, the much-improved Kansas City Royals.
At Citi Field in New York, the Mets will lift the lid on a season they hope will feature many more victories than 2013, with Dillon Gee getting the ball against the Washington Nationals and their ace, Stephen Strasburg. That one has a first pitch of 1:10 p.m. ET.
Elsewhere, ballparks of both leagues will be packed with giddy fans and dotted with new faces in new uniforms.
The Texas Rangers will host the Philadelphia Phillies in the first Interleague matchup of the season, and they'll be doing it with a new first baseman (Prince Fielder) and leadoff man (Shin-Soo Choo) in their quest to surge back to the top of the AL West. Tanner Scheppers will get the ball for the Rangers against Cliff Lee in the 2:05 p.m. ET start.
In Milwaukee, the Brewers will get things going for 2014 with an opener against the Braves, who will give the ball to young Julio Teheran. Teheran had a breakout rookie year last season and will need to carry the torch for a pitching rotation that has been hurt by injuries this spring, with Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy both out with Tommy John surgery.
You'll have to wait until 3:05 p.m. ET to watch the return of the World Series champion Red Sox, who'll be in Baltimore against the Orioles. The pitching duel on tap alone (Jon Lester vs. Chris Tillman) will be worth it. Then again, there's the bonus of watching Grady Sizemore, Boston's new center fielder, in his first Major League action since 2011. Sizemore fought his way back to the bigs after multiple surgeries and could pull off one of the more remarkable stories of the season if he's anything like he used to be.
"It's nice to have some positive news," Sizemore said. "In the last couple of years, everything's been so negative. It's almost hard to realize what's going on. Hard to sink in."
But it's all sinking in, all over the country.
Late March weather will surely give a little bit of a bite to some of the stadiums today, like in Chicago, where the White Sox and Chris Sale will take on the Twins and their new right-hander, Ricky Nolasco, and in Cincinnati, where the pomp of an Opening Day parade will precede the on-field procession at Great American Ball Park between the hometown Reds and the defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals.
There, we'll see another ace-off between Reds righty Johnny Cueto and perennial Cy Young Award contender Adam Wainwright of St. Louis. Both enter the game with designs on leading their staffs to championship height and are as pumped as anyone for the arrival of a new season.
Wainwright still hasn't recorded an Opening Day win in a stellar career.
"An Opening Day start is obviously an awesome honor and something I'm very excited about, something I hope to do for five more years," Wainwright said. "Winning is ultimately the name of the game. You can start as many Opening Days as you want, but if you don't win them, you're going to lose a little bit of greatness on that day. It would be nice to win one."
That will be the prevailing attitude in Cincinnati and well as in St. Petersburg, where the Tampa Bay Rays will lean on David Price to help get off to a 1-0 start in the AL East against a Blue Jays team that will try to rebound from a tough 2013 and will give the ball to knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
In Miami, the Marlins and last season's NL Rookie of the Year Award winner, starting pitcher Jose Fernandez, will go up against the Rockies and left-hander Jorge De La Rosa in the first night game of Opening Day, a 7:05 p.m. ET start.
And after that, attention will shift out West, where the D-backs will try to bust out of their two-game losing streak from Down Under, with Brandon McCarthy going up against the Giants and Madison Bumgarner at 6:40 p.m. PT at Chase Field.
Two playoff clubs from a year ago will meet in Oakland when the A's and Indians play tonight at the O.co Coliseum. Justin Masterson will pitch for a confident Cleveland team against A's upstart Sonny Gray, who made his mark after a late-2013 callup and looked dominant at times in his team's tight AL Division Series loss to the Tigers.
"He wants the ball," A's catcher Stephen Vogt said of Gray. "Game on the line, he wants to be pitching. He wants so badly to succeed, and he never gets down. He'll give up a home run and bear down even more. I've never seen him fazed by anything. He's all about the moment."
And so is baseball on Opening Day, which will conclude at 7:05 p.m. PT at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, where the Mariners and Felix Hernandez will invade and hope to begin a turnaround in the AL West with a young roster and their flashy new acquisition, second baseman Robinson Cano. Meanwhile, the Angels, with a healthy Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, a newly minted contract extension with all-everything center fielder Mike Trout and ace Jered Weaver ready to go tonight, have designs on improving their standing in the division for manager Mike Scioscia.
"Our main goal is to try to jump out and turn this thing around," Pujols said. "Don't dig a hole that early in the month. You always hear, 'It's early. It's early.' But you don't want to be coming from behind. You want to have a good start."
Today, a long-awaited, frenzied and fantastic Opening Day will start the 2014 Major League season in the United States and in the standings.
It's about time.