As is often the case, Thursday is a travel day for many teams, leading to a shortened schedule. However, Friday will yield up a series of key matchups that will make for compelling early-season viewing and perhaps a few destiny-changing outcomes.
Angels at Yankees
The home opener for the Yankees brings Albert Pujols to the Bronx for the first time since 2003, so this will be the three-time MVP’s first visit to the House that Ruth Didn’t Build. Pujols’ first five games have been nothing special—4-for-18 with two doubles—so he will be looking to get his season started in earnest against Hiroki Kuroda (3-for-15 with a home run), Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova. This is a great combination of player and showcase and a potential playoff preview as well. With a 2-4 record, the Angels will also be looking to make a stronger statement as to their claim on the AL West.
Rays at Red Sox
There isn’t much to say except that the Rays are 5-1 and the Red Sox aren’t. It’s not necessarily the job of Bobby Valentine and Co. to stave off full-fledged panic in their fanbase, but they could probably use a shot of confidence themselves. This is largely the same group that experienced September’s freefall, and while those of us outside the situation know that this group is too talented to let that happen again, for those inside the situation, rationality may be more difficult to come by, particularly when you’re being asked again and again, What the hell is wrong with you?
As for the Rays, they will look to David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore to make a compelling argument that they deserve their current first-place standing. The Red Sox will have their work cut out for them—right now, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront don’t look like the strongest rejoinder.
Tigers at White Sox
At 3-2 (.600), the White Sox have been better than expected. The Tigers should be able to burst their bubble, but on paper, the matchups (Max Scherzer vs. Jake Peavy, Adam Wilk vs. Gavin Floyd and Rick Porcello vs. Chris Sale) would seem to favor the Sox. Detroit’s bats should provide the great equalizer.
Cubs at Cardinals
A traditional rivalry no less interesting for the fact that for the 114th time in a row, this isn’t the Cubs’ year. The two teams will have a “We Didn’t Quite Plan It This Way Weekend,” with one-start wonder Jeff Samardzija trying to solidify his new-found status as an effective relief—er, start—that is, an effective anything and Adam Wainwright, coming back from Tommy John surgery matching up on Friday. They are followed by Chris Volstad, a ground-ball artist and former first-round pick of the Marlins who has failed to justify that status, and Lance Lynn, who would be in the bullpen but for Chris Carpenter’s injury.
Sunday’s finale brings Paul Maholm, the Cubs’ second ex-Pirates pitcher of the series (you know you’ve got problems when you’re staffing your team with players who weren’t exactly stars in Pittsburgh) and Jake Westbrook, who has gone from the pitcher the Cards might have preferred to get rid of to a very important piece of their title defense.
Pirates at Giants
Simply, can the Giants get their season going against a team that doesn’t really exist? In fairness to the Buccos, they’ve pitched quite well thus far, but haven’t hit at all.
Mets at Phillies
Tempted to say “See Pirates at Giants,” except that the Mets are 4-2 at this writing. Just like the Red Sox won’t always be 1-5, the Mets aren’t going to be long for the top of the charts. The Phillies are going to have a hard time winning as long as their infield is hitting .221/.265/.284 as a unit, even if their rotation is one of the deepest in recent memory.
As for the Mets, their pitching may be better than it has been given credit for, but the offense just isn’t going to hang in there. The series is all good matchups on paper, R.A. Dickey and Cliff Lee, Jon Niese and Vance Worley and Mike Pelfrey and Cole Hamels. Then again, maybe that last one doesn’t belong; one gets the sense that Mets fans were over Pelfrey sometime early last year.
Brewers at Braves
Thursday afternoon’s splattering of Zack Greinke notwithstanding, the Brewers—even Ryan Braun, ye skeptic—have picked up roughly where they left off last year. The Braves just haven’t picked up. If they’re not going to hit, and they probably won’t, then they need better pitching than they’ve received so far. They also need manager Fredi Gonzalez to be smarter than he has been to this point. Last year, he went for Johnny Venters and Craig Kimbrel too often. Now, he’s not going for them enough.
Diamondbacks at Rockies
Two claimants for the NL West title due it out. The Diamondbacks have a little bit of everything, and they’re going to have even more once Stephen Drew gets back—not that Willie Bloomquist’s 7-for-18 start has hurt them at all. The Rockies haven’t pitched yet, and with their staff, you have to wonder if they’re going to. It’s one thing to cheer for Jamie Moyer to pitch past his 50th birthday, another for him to be your team’s No. 2 starter.
Padres at Dodgers
The Padres are a weak team off to a weak start. It’s not so much their offense that is the problem, although it won’t be good, Petco-suppression or not. Pitching depth is a bigger issue: Edinson Volquez, Corey Luebke, Clayton Richard, Anthony Bass and Joe Wieland doesn’t look much like a division-winning rotation.
The Dodgers are off to a surprisingly good start given their difficult offseason, but look at what they have: the best pitcher in the league, the best hitter in the league, one of the best bullpens in the league and a seemingly reborn Chad Billingsley. Almost everything else is a patchwork (can we be done with James Loney, please?), but in this division, that might be enough.
The Padres are just sparring partners standing in for the real competition in San Francisco and Phoenix, but holding up against them would be a start.