03/31/11 12:00 AM ET
Rivalries highlight Opening Day slate
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
It's Opening Day and something wonderful is about to happen again.
Major League Baseball begins its 2011 regular season on Thursday, a new day indeed. The schedule was moved up to accommodate an earlier World Series, and it starts with the following six matchups (all times ET): Braves at Nationals at 1:05 p.m.; Tigers at Yankees at 1:05 p.m.; Brewers at Reds at 2:10 p.m.; Angels at Royals at 4:10 p.m.; Padres at Cardinals at 4:15 p.m.; and the defending World Series champion Giants at the rival Dodgers at 8 p.m. in the ESPN Opening Night game.
The remaining nine season-openers are scheduled on Friday as part of an 11-game slate. Then, over the next week and a half all remaining home openers await, accorded the same lavish pageantry that is about to stir your senses. It has been 149 days since Brian Wilson threw the last real pitch to Nelson Cruz, ending one drought. Now we do it all again, watching the many transplanted players like Jayson Werth, Dan Uggla and Victor Martinez, while welcoming back fixtures like Albert Pujols, Joey Votto, Derek Jeter and Tim Lincecum.
"Obviously, [opening against the Dodgers] matters a lot to the fans, and it's a big rivalry between us and them," Lincecum said of his Thursday opponent. "But whether Opening Day is against them or in Houston, it's still Opening Day. You want to do well regardless."
The Giants begin their quest to become the first repeat champion since the 1998-2000 Yankees, and the first in the National League to repeat since the 1975-76 Reds. They start in the most hostile of settings, against a Dodgers club beginning a new era. New Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly just announced that Clayton Kershaw will be his Opening Day starter, making the 23-year-old left-hander the youngest Dodger to earn that honor since Fernando Valenzuela, who was 22 in on Opening Day in 1983.
"I sort of see it as another step," Kershaw said. "My first year, I pitched in the playoffs out of the bullpen. Then I started a postseason game. Then I started Game 1. It's the same way I see my career. I want to keep progressing. This is one more progression and you kind of learn from everything."
For the first time since 1989, when Russ Nixon was at their helm and George H.W. Bush had just taken over as U.S. President, the Braves will open a season with someone other than the now-retired Bobby Cox as manager. The Fredi Gonzalez era officially begins as the Braves visit the Nationals at 1:05 ET.
Maybe the best sight of all for Braves fans is Chipper Jones, who's not only back at third base, but looking so far this spring like the Chipper of yesterday. He seemed to be hobbling off into the sunset last fall, but in Florida the veteran hit .387 with eight doubles, four homers and 15 RBIs in 21 games. If his knee can survive the chilly climes and daily stress, there is an X-factor in the NL East.
"We feel like we have the kind of confidence, that when we walk out on that field we expect to win," said Jones, who turns 39 next month. "That's a good feeling to have. That's the feeling we had the first 12 years I was here. We kind of lost it for a couple of years, but that winning mentality is starting to come back."
Derek Lowe will make his third consecutive Opening Day start for Atlanta. It's the fourth such honor in Nationals franchise history for Livan Hernandez, but his first since the club moved from Montreal after the 2006 season. He follows John Patterson (2007), Odalis Perez (2008) and John Lannan (2009-10).
"I'm ready to go through the season," Hernandez said. "I feel good. It's very nice to give me the honor to pitch that first game of the season. I have a chance to win that day."
Jeter could move closer to 3,000 hits. He enters the season 74 hits shy, and he will bat behind newly appointed leadoff man Brett Gardner. He'll restart the countdown in front of a raucous full house at Yankee Stadium, where former teammate Mike Mussina will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
"I'll try to enjoy it, I guess," Jeter said of the countdown. "I think in the past I've pretty much tried to block it out, and not pay attention to it. For myself, I'll appreciate the journey and have fun with it."
Justin Verlander will be Jeter's first obstacle, and as a notorious slow starter it will be interesting to see whether his upgraded offseason training regimen will have the immediate effect for which Verlander hopes. He has been shelled in recent openers. The same is true of his opposing starter, CC Sabathia, so what you have in the New York opener are two starters who are dominant forces in the game, but not prone to last much longer on Opening Days than the flyovers.
Since joining the Yankees in 2009, Sabathia has struggled in his Opening Day assignments. In his 2009 debut at Baltimore, he gave up six runs in 4 1/3 innings and took the loss. Last year, he opened at Boston on a Sunday night and found himself behind in the count too often, allowing five runs over 5 1/3 innings. This is his eighth Opening Day start, and in four of the last five he has been knocked around.
Maybe the best matchup of the day is in Cincinnati, where the two teams picked by most to duke it out for the National League Central title will start their season-long rivalry. With Zack Greinke on the shelf for maybe the first month because of a rib injury, Yovani Gallardo gets the start for Milwaukee. Edinson Volzquez has the honor for a Reds team whose last real game was a postseason contest -- a Game 3 loss to the Phillies.
That was the first postseason appearance by the Reds in 15 years, and their fans will be clamoring for more when they enjoy the Findlay Market Parade through downtown followed by the big game against Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun & Co. at Great American Ball Park.
"We can be a much better team, I think," said 2010 NL Most Valuable Player Votto, who came a long way in terms of public perception last year. "It all starts and ends with the pitching staff, but they're a young group of guys also. I notice huge leaps between offseasons. You can step back, think about the mistakes you've made and how you want to improve and adjust your training. You experience life lessons, and it pays off on the field."
Another club with designs on the NL Central throne is St. Louis, despite the loss of ace Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery. As always, emotions will run high during ceremonies at Busch Stadium, and the theme there this year is "Cardinal Nation" -- honoring the team's Hall of Famers, paying tribute to Stan Musial on receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and including a first pitch by Cardinals retired center fielder Jim Edmonds.
Then Chris Carpenter takes the ball for his sixth Opening Day start. He'll open a series against a Padres club that is always likely to safeguard a lead ... if it gets the ball to Heath Bell.
"Every time you get to pitch Opening Day, it is exciting," Carpenter said. "I don't care if you're 22 or 40. To do what we do and start the season, the excitement of starting the season and the excitement that comes to this ballclub and that stadium and the city when baseball season starts, it's an exciting thing. I'm looking forward to it, and it's going to be a lot of fun."
Across the state, Luke Hochevar makes his first Opening Day start for a Royals team that is brimming with optimism over its up-and-coming talent. That opener will give a first real look at the impressive Angels outfield, too. Vernon Wells is new in left after an offseason trade from Toronto, and Torii Hunter moves over to right to accommodate phenom Peter Bourjos.
Hunter crushed a two-run homer to close out Spring Training in Arizona, and Angels manager Mike Scioscia said he likes what he sees entering this opener.
"Guys that are very important to us are playing at a very high level," Scioscia said. "We hope they will carry this over into Kansas City."
This year marks the 70th anniversary of one of the most special seasons in history. In 1941, the great DiMaggio hit safely in a record 56 consecutive games. Ted Williams batted .406, the last batter to finish at or above .400. There are limitless possibilities in the days and months ahead, and it all begins now with those two much-anticipated words: Opening Day.
Something wonderful is about to happen.
Mark Newman is Enterprise Editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.