KANSAS CITY -- The Rangers and Royals are heading north of their shared Spring Training complex in Surprise, Ariz., to meet at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday for Opening Day. They’ll play a three-game set -- Thursday, Saturday and Sunday -- to open the 2021 regular season.
Kansas City will welcome a limited number of fans back to Kauffman Stadium for the first time in 18 months as the Royals hope to carry their momentum from the offseason and Spring Training into the regular season.
After a 26-34 record in 2020, the Royals are ready to take the next step toward contending in the American League Central. First baseman Carlos Santana, left fielder Andrew Benintendi, center fielder Michael A. Taylor and starter Mike Minor are among new faces brought in via trade or free agency this winter, while Wade Davis joins Greg Holland for a throwback to the Royals’ vaunted bullpen during the 2014-15 World Series.
The Rangers, who finished last in the AL West last season with a 22-38 record, are committed to their youth movement but also have veterans ready to prove themselves, with outfielder David Dahl in the fold and outfielder Joey Gallo healthy again. Texas has had an injury-racked spring, with the bullpen taking the biggest hit.
Injuries to closer candidates José Leclerc and Jonathan Hernández, along with the delayed starts of Demarcus Evans and Joely Rodríguez, have made the Rangers turn to two Spring Training non-roster invitees looking to make a comeback -- former Royal Ian Kennedy and former No. 1 Draft pick Matt Bush (2004 by the Padres) -- as their high-leverage relievers.
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the Rangers-Royals matchup on Opening Day:
When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch is slated for 3:10 p.m. CT on Thursday. The game will be televised on both Bally Sports Kansas City and Southwest (formerly known as Fox Sports Kansas City and Southwest), along with MLB.TV. There will also be radio broadcasts on the Rangers’ and Royals’ Radio Networks.
The starting lineups
Rangers: After trying a few different players in the leadoff spot, manager Chris Woodward landed with shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who slashed .333/.412/.489 this spring. Woodward also moved Gallo from the cleanup spot to the three-hole in order to get him more at-bats throughout the season. With both expected designated hitters -- Khris Davis and Willie Calhoun -- out with injuries, the cleanup spot could go to a number of players, but first baseman Nate Lowe found his footing at the plate late in Spring Training. No. 4 prospect Leody Taveras will likely start the season in center field and slot in at the nine-hole after some struggles batting leadoff in the spring. Woodward said he hopes Taveras can win that spot back.
Royals: The Royals entered spring with Whit Merrifield as their right fielder and Nicky Lopez as their second baseman. A tough spring for Lopez (.118 with a .378 OPS) saw him optioned to Triple-A Omaha to work on his swing, while Merrifield takes over second base and remains in the leadoff spot. The roster battle for right field seems to have been won by No. 5 prospect Kyle Isbel, who has batted near the bottom of the lineup with the regulars and turned heads with his quality at-bats and excellent defense. With Adalberto Mondesi beginning the season on the injured list because of a right oblique strain, the Royals will likely shift everyone up while sliding Lopez into the ninth spot to utilize his speed at the bottom of the lineup. Royals manager Mike Matheny could also put Hunter Dozier third and have Salvador Perez, Carlos Santana and Jorge Soler take over the Nos. 4-6 spots.
Who are the starting pitchers?
Rangers: Right-hander Kyle Gibson will notch his first Opening Day start for the Rangers. The 33-year-old added a cutter to his arsenal this offseason and has been working on how to incorporate it into his repertoire all spring. Gibson struggled in the 2020 season, like the entirety of the Rangers' staff, posting a 5.35 ERA over 67 1/3 innings (12 starts). He’s been one of Texas’ best pitchers this spring, posting a 2.70 ERA with 10 strikeouts across 10 innings. Woodward believes Gibson is pitching at the highest level, and he's confident handing him the ball on Opening Day. For the remaining two games against the Royals, expect former Brave Mike Foltynewicz and Kohei Arihara, a former professional pitcher in Japan, to slot in.
Royals: Right-hander Brad Keller will start his second Opening Day after throwing seven shutout innings in 2019 for the Royals. Keller posted a 2.47 ERA across nine starts in ’20 after starting the season on the COVID-19 injured list. The 25-year-old’s Opening Day nod is a testament to the Royals’ belief in him as their leader on the mound and speaks to the confidence they have that he’ll take the next step in his game this year. Behind Keller, the Royals will give the ball to Minor on Saturday and Brady Singer on Sunday to round out the Opening Series.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Rangers: The bullpen has been wrecked with injuries this spring, and the final roster has yet to be finalized for Texas. Bush and Josh Sborz will be available Opening Day, as will No. 22 prospect Kyle Cody. Kennedy is probably going to slot in as the Rangers’ closer early in the season. A converted starter, Kennedy notched 30 saves for Kansas City in 2019, and Woodward confirmed he would mostly be used in save situations this season.
Royals: Kansas City returns its big arms in Holland, Josh Staumont, Jesse Hahn and Scott Barlow, and Davis figures to be a big piece of the bullpen this year after a Spring Training where he showed his health and velocity. Kyle Zimmer has had an up-and-down spring but seems set for a spot in the ‘pen after a healthy offseason. Jakob Junis and Ervin Santana, as long-inning relievers and spot starters, might not appear in Game 1, but they will likely be in the bullpen to start the season. One spot remains open for lefty Jake Brentz or a right-hander like Carlos Hernández.
Any injuries of note?
Rangers: So, so many injuries for the Rangers. The biggest ones include Davis and Calhoun, both of whom entered the spring competing for the designated-hitter spot in the lineup. Calhoun has been dealing with a hamstring strain for most of the spring, and Davis sustained a Grade 2 left quad strain in the win over the Angels last week. Texas doesn’t have many roster options for DH, so you may see Guzman or Jonah Heim start there during Opening Week. The bullpen also took a hit when Hernández went down with a UCL injury and Leclerc suffered an elbow injury. Fellow pitchers Evans, Rodríguez and Justin Anderson all came into Spring Training with injuries and aren’t likely to be in the Opening Day lineup. Bush and Kennedy have stepped into those high-leverage roles left vacant by Hernández and Leclerc, and the middle of the bullpen will be a work in progress to start the season.
Royals: The Royals had stayed relatively healthy this spring -- until Mondesi was put on the IL on Wednesday. Some hitters dealt with back tightness early in spring, but none of it was concerning and nobody missed a significant amount of time.
Who is hot and who is not?
Rangers: Gallo has crushed the ball during Cactus League play. He’s had 13 hits in 39 at-bats, including nine for extra bases and six for home runs. In the Rangers’ final game in Arizona against the Cubs on Sunday, Gallo went 2-for-2 at the plate, including a two-out, two-run homer in the second inning. Gallo has a new bat in hand and has improved his launch angle this offseason, hoping to return to his 2019 All-Star form. Trevino would fall into the “not” category and has struggled at the plate all spring with a .167 batting average. But Trevino has been more praised for his defensive abilities than his work at the plate.
Royals: The Royals’ lineup flexed its strength all spring. Soler, Dozier and Ryan O'Hearn led the team with five home runs apiece. Santana led the team with 11 walks -- exactly what the Royals wanted to see from the on-base machine. Taylor and Benintendi have cooled off at the end of spring, but they still showed what they are capable of with gap-to-gap hitting, speed and some pop.
Anything else fans might want to know?
• The Royals will have reduced capacity at Kauffman Stadium to start the season, allowing around 10,000 fans to watch games in person. The organization hopes to reassess the health and safety protocols as the season progresses, with a chance to open up more seating.
• Royals first-base coach and fan favorite Rusty Kuntz will be back in his familiar spot Thursday after opting out of coaching on the field last season because of COVID-19 concerns. Royals outfielders, baserunners and other personnel have loved seeing Kuntz back on his famed bicycle around Spring Training, and Matheny is ecstatic to have him back on the staff for 2021.
• Be on the lookout for Foltynewicz’s comeback this series. He was DFA’d by the Braves after a particularly bad start and a drop in velocity in 2020 -- 3 1/3 innings giving up six runs on four hits -- and the Rangers got him cheap this winter. He gained weight in the offseason and his velocity this spring has sat around 94-95 mph and topped out at 97. He may not be back to his 2018 All-Star form, when he posted a 2.85 ERA, but he’s definitely a renewed version of himself.