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Opening Day moments could be early indicators

Start marked by Harper-Strasburg resurgence, Encarnacion's impact
April 4, 2017

On Opening Day 2016, Miguel Montero hit the lone home run in a Cubs victory.On the final night of baseball in 2016, Montero drove in the run that ultimately secured the Cubs' first World Series championship in 108 years.See? We should bookmark our observations on a day that feels more

On Opening Day 2016, Miguel Montero hit the lone home run in a Cubs victory.
On the final night of baseball in 2016, Montero drove in the run that ultimately secured the Cubs' first World Series championship in 108 years.
See? We should bookmark our observations on a day that feels more important than all the rest.
With that in mind, here are five takeaways from a memorable start to 2017:
1. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were their superstar selves.
The Nationals' essential narrative won't change for at least another six months: Despite possessing elite talent for most of the current decade, the franchise has not won a playoff series since 1981, when it was based in Montreal.
Strasburg has started one postseason game, a loss to the Giants in 2014. Harper finished with no home runs and one RBI in the Nationals' five-game Division Series loss to the Dodgers last fall.
To the extent that the regular season is a dress rehearsal for the opportunity to shatter those narratives in October, Monday was an auspicious beginning: Strasburg earned the victory with his first seven-inning start since July 27, and Harper turned the game's momentum with a solo home run off David Phelps in the sixth inning.
We may never receive a full explanation for Harper's mysterious funk last year. But we can say for certain that Monday's swing reminded us more of the 2015 Harper. Nationals fans have every reason to be optimistic.
2. The Indians' re-engineered lineup could be better than the 2016 version.
Here's something rarely said about a World Series team: Only three players -- Carlos Santana, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez -- appeared in Terry Francona's starting lineup for both Game 7 of the World Series and Monday's 2017 opener in Arlington.
And that's not necessarily bad news.
Cleveland's Opening Day lineup featured a new Nos. 3-4 tandem, the apparently healed Michael Brantley and newly signed Edwin Encarnacion. Each drove in a run, Encarnacion's coming on a game-tying solo homer in the eighth off Matt Bush.

The Indians have retained last year's lineup depth -- six hitters drove in at least one run on Monday -- with more upside potential. Lindor is a popular American League MVP Award pick, Brantley was an AL MVP Award finalist in 2014, and Encarnacion is one of the most complete power hitters on the planet.
Yandy Díaz had an intriguing Major League debut at third base, and Cleveland's lineup will get even better once Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall return from the disabled list.
From last October through Monday night, the Indians' status as the AL's pre-eminent team remains unchanged.
3. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays miss Encarnacion. Already.
Baseball irony is rarely subtle.
Not long before Encarnacion rescued his new team with an eighth-inning homer, his old team lost to the division-rival Orioles after its Nos. 3-6 hitters went a combined 0-for-17. Jose Bautista, Encarnacion's longtime co-star, stranded eight runners on base.
You may dismiss the result of one game, but the Blue Jays' lineup has been unsettled since Spring Training began. Encarnacion is gone, having been replaced by Kendrys Morales. Josh Donaldson sustained an injury almost immediately after reporting to camp and was limited to 16 spring at-bats. Bautista was away at the World Baseball Classic.
Consequently, manager John Gibbons didn't have the opportunity to establish a set everyday lineup during Spring Training. Moreover, among candidates to play left field, Steve Pearce was the Opening Day first baseman and Melvin Upton Jr. was released.
This is no one's fault, but there's now moderate instability for what has been -- by reputation -- the AL's most feared lineup. The Blue Jays were working to re-establish their offensive identity long before Opening Day; that effort remains ongoing before Game 2.
4. Exhale, Dodgers fans: Corey Seager is healthy.
Seager went nearly one month -- from March 3 until April 1 -- without playing in a Cactus League game because of an injured oblique. He ended Spring Training with a total of eight at-bats in Major League games.
Then Seager showed up at Dodger Stadium on Opening Day and went 2-for-5 with an opposite-field home run. Credit his youth (22) and the Dodgers' athletic training staff.
For a Dodgers team that stood even with the Cubs four games into the National League Championship Series, Seager's productivity is of paramount importance in 2017. And the force of Seager's homer swing suggested his oblique is doing quite well, thanks.

5. The Rockies affirmed their springtime optimism.
The NL is so top-heavy -- Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, et al -- that few experts were bold enough to predict any true sleepers as playoff teams.
MLB Network analyst Eric Byrnes provided an apt description of the Rockies on Monday's MLB Tonight: He believes in all the reasons why they can contend. It's just difficult to find room for them in a five-team playoff field, given the strength of competition.
But if you want to believe in Colorado as an October disrupter, Monday offered a measure of validation. Mark Reynolds started at first base and delivered a home run -- a routine the Rockies hope will continue during Ian Desmond's absence. Nolan Arenado (2-for-3, two runs) showed that he's recovered from his WBC '17 slump. And the bullpen delivered five shutout innings, courtesy of Scott Oberg, Carlos Estévez, Mike Dunn, Adam Ottavino and Greg Holland.
Full disclosure: They did so against a Brewers team that lost 89 games last year. But Colorado, under pitching guru Bud Black, has a veteran trio (Dunn, Ottavino and Holland) capable of bringing order to the often frenetic late innings at Coors Field. And we know the Rockies are going to hit. So for now, they remain an April darling for contrarian prognosticators everywhere.

Jon Paul Morosi is a national columnist for