ST. LOUIS -- Baseball in 2020 will look a little different, starting with an Opening Day in July instead of the usual March. But it doesn’t mean teams are going to be any less competitive, and the National League Central is set to be one of the closest races in the league this year.
The reigning division-champion Cardinals are returning with the core of their team, and they expect to stay at the top, as the Cubs and Brewers look to reclaim the division. The Reds are markedly improved after an offseason of acquisitions. The Pirates’ new leadership group can finally take the field and begin to shape and assess their roster of the future. In a shortened, 60-game sprint to the finish, anything is possible.
It all kicks off Friday. The Cardinals will host the Pirates for a three-game set this weekend at Busch Stadium. The Cards, coming off a 91-71 season, didn’t make a huge splash this winter in adding to their roster. Their confidence is in second-year manager Mike Shildt, internal improvement and young talent to stay atop the division.
The Pirates are coming off a last-place finish in the division, but they are determined to show that they’re better than last year’s 69-win season might indicate. Friday will be first-year manager Derek Shelton’s long-awaited managerial debut as the Bucs begin a new chapter in club history.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch is set for 8:15 p.m. ET/7:15 p.m. CT, and it will air locally on FOX Sports Midwest and AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh. KMOX 1120 AM and the Cardinals Radio Network will also broadcast the game, as well as KDKA-FM and the Pirates Radio Network. Cards fans can listen to a live Spanish broadcast on WIJR AM 880.
The Pirates’ lineup was dealt a late blow in camp as they learned that right fielder Gregory Polanco tested positive for COVID-19. By all accounts, Polanco is feeling good and hoping to return as soon as he clears the necessary tests. But for now, Pittsburgh must move forward without the left-handed bat the club expected to slot behind All-Star first baseman Josh Bell.
Bell is perhaps the only true power threat in this projected lineup, but the Pirates have capable hitters in front of him. Kevin Newman hit .308 as a rookie last year. Bryan Reynolds slashed .314/.377/.503 in his debut season. And Adam Frazier has hit .279 with a .342 on-base percentage in his four-year career. But the Bucs need someone, like Colin Moran or José Osuna, to step up behind Bell while Polanco is out. Heredia, Stallings and Dyson may not offer a ton at the plate, but the Pirates hope that all three will help improve their team defense.
The Cardinals are returning most of the same lineup last year except for cleanup hitter Marcell Ozuna, who signed a free-agent deal with the Braves. The club is confident that the improvement made within the lineup will lead to better results than the 2019 offense that flickered all season. Matt Carpenter’s revival will help, as well as contributions from a new leadoff hitter and a new cleanup hitter. Tyler O’Neill won the left-field starting spot, while Lane Thomas slots in as a fourth outfielder and will get playing time at all three spots. The Cards are going to do what they can to get versatile Tommy Edman playing time after his breakout rookie season. Look for him to see time all over the infield and some at DH this season.
Who are the starting pitchers?
Pirates: Joe Musgrove will make his first Opening Day start after emerging as the leader of Pittsburgh’s rotation and clubhouse over the past year. He had an excellent showing in Summer Camp, capped by his five-strikeout performance in a three-inning tuneup against Cleveland last Saturday at PNC Park. The 27-year-old right-hander is one of the pitchers who stands to benefit from working with forward-thinking, analytically inclined pitching coach Oscar Marin, who has encouraged the Pirates to utilize their individual strengths rather than preaching a uniform pitching philosophy throughout the organization. Musgrove struggled against the Cardinals last year, going 0-4 with a 10.00 ERA in four starts against them, so they’ll be a good first test to determine how far he’s come on the mound.
Cardinals: Jack Flaherty will make his first Opening Day start at 24 years old, making him the youngest Cardinals pitcher to start Opening Day since Joe Magrane in 1989. Flaherty is coming off an historic second half last season, when his 0.91 ERA after the All-Star break was the third-lowest in history. He allowed fewer runs (11) than he had starts (15) across 99 1/3 innings. Flaherty emerged as the Cards' ace last season, unleashing his fastball while harnessing its command. Attacking with the fastball meant he could be aggressive with his slider, and Flaherty struck out 231 last season. Only Bob Gibson had more K's in a single season as a Cardinal. Flaherty’s second half led him to a fourth-place finish in NL Cy Young Award voting. Flaherty was 1-0 in two starts against Pittsburgh last year, allowing one run in 15 innings (0.60 ERA), striking out 18 and walking four.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Pirates: It’s an important question that the Pirates may not have an answer for right away. With closer Keone Kela on the injured list, Shelton isn’t likely to pick a replacement closer to fill the ninth-inning void. Instead, expect to see the rookie manager use his bullpen based on matchups. Most likely, the highest-leverage work will go to right-handers Kyle Crick, Richard Rodríguez and Michael Feliz. People within the organization expect right-hander Nick Burdi to grow into that role as well. The Bucs are hoping that righties Clay Holmes and Dovydas Neverauskas will finally put together performances that match their raw stuff, and they are comfortable with the versatile options they have in right-hander Chris Stratton and lefty Robbie Erlin.
Cardinals: The Cardinals have a ton of options in the bullpen, especially to start the season with 16 pitchers on the roster. Roles will largely be based on matchups and who’s available that day, but the Cards have named lefty Kwang Hyun Kim their closer to start the season. Kim was battling for the fifth spot in the rotation after establishing himself as a starter over 12 years in the Korean Baseball Organization. But Carlos Martínez won the job, and St. Louis liked the look Kim will give in the ninth inning. Other high-leverage relievers will be veteran lefty Andrew Miller, Ryan Helsley, John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon, who’s also built up to go multiple innings. Along with Miller, the Cardinals have Austin Gomber, Tyler Webb and Brett Cecil as lefties in the ‘pen.
Any injuries or absences of note?
Pirates: Plenty. Starters Jameson Taillon (Tommy John surgery) and Chris Archer (neurogenic thoracic outlet syndrome) won’t pitch this year. Catcher Luke Maile (fractured right index finger) and infielder Kevin Kramer (right hip surgery) are also out for the season. Polanco and Kela (positive COVID-19 tests) are also sidelined for the time being. Utility man JT Riddle was placed on the 10-day injured list, retroactive to Monday, with a strained right abdomen.
Cardinals: Relievers Jordan Hicks (opted out of the 2020 season, citing pre-existing health concerns) and John Brebbia (Tommy John surgery) won’t pitch this year. Relievers Giovanny Gallegos, Alex Reyes and Génesis Cabrera all arrived late to camp, and their timeline to pitch in games is unknown. Gallegos will likely be ready before Reyes and Cabrera, who were quarantined for two weeks in St. Louis without the ability to throw. Once they’re built up, the bullpen will get welcome depth. Veteran infielder/outfielder Brad Miller has been sidelined most of Summer Camp with right heel discomfort and will likely not be on the Opening Day roster. He’s been seeing live pitching and fielding, so once he’s cleared to run at full speed, he should be able to build up quickly.
Who is hot and who is not?
Pirates: Musgrove is coming in hot, having allowed only a single and one walk in his exhibition start against Cleveland. Reynolds had a good Spring Training and smacked the first pitch he saw Saturday to center field for a single. Coaches have raved about the work of Moran, who went 2-for-3 with a double in Pittsburgh’s first exhibition game, then went 2-for-5 with a homer on Monday. The Pirates are also high on Heredia, who went deep on Monday, and young shortstop/outfielder Cole Tucker, who tweaked his swing to add more loft with an eye on generating more power. The bullpen struggled in Spring Training and didn’t ease many concerns in the first two exhibition games, allowing five runs on Saturday and 10 more on Monday. And Bell didn’t exactly set the world on fire in Spring Training, but it typically takes him time to find his timing at the plate -- and he may be finding it, if his right-handed opposite-field homer on Monday was any indication.
Cardinals: It’s hard to say after a smattering of intrasquad games, but Carpenter has looked more like himself than he did all of last season. After searching for his swing and identity this offseason and spring, Carpenter has two home runs in Summer Camp games and has driven the ball to all parts of the field. DeJong has found a groove driving in runs in the four-hole of the lineup. Gomber had one of the more impressive camps. He allowed one hit in four innings during one intrasquad start, when 10 of his 39 strikes were first-pitch strikes. After transitioning to a bullpen role, he struck out one and needed 11 pitches to get through an inning of work. And Miller, who struggled in Spring Training with a lack of feel, has looked steady in four intrasquad appearances.
Anything else fans might want to know?
• Opening Day will look a little different in St. Louis this year. There won’t be the usual fanfare, Clydesdales or Red Jackets that are normally seen around Busch Stadium. But the Cardinals will try to virtually bring the home opener to fans watching on TV and over social media. Ballpark Village, across the street from Busch Stadium, will also be open in limited capacity and with safety measures in place. Clark Street will be blocked off from traffic so that Cardinals Nation can have outdoor seating for fans.
• The last time these two teams played on Opening Day, they squared off at PNC Park in the first game of the 2016 regular season. The Pirates beat the Cardinals that day, 4-1, with a first-pitch temperature of 39 degrees. Suffice it to say Friday will be different.