We dipped our toes into the waters of the 2020 baseball season with two games on Thursday. On Friday, we dove in headfirst with 14 contests — the first time since the regular season ended on Sept. 29, 2019, that we had coast-to-coast baseball. That was 299 days ago, and it feels like much longer.
The result? It was glorious.
It wasn’t glorious because all of the games were great, though some of them were very good. It wasn’t glorious because records were broken, though players such as Kyle Hendricks, Shane Bieber, Max Kepler and Eric Hosmer enjoyed memorable, historically significant openers. It wasn’t glorious because of long-anticipated debuts, such as Luis Robert in Chicago, or long-anticipated returns, such as Yoenis Cespedes in New York. It was glorious simply because it happened. After months of collective longing, baseball was back.
At the same time, the looming bizarreness of the season — no fans; synthetic ballpark sounds; cardboard cutouts in the stands; ubiquitous masks; and so much more — did not overwhelm the experience of watching it unfold at home, on television. Instead, it felt quite familiar, as if we stepped into a season that had been going on for months. It didn’t quite feel or look or sound normal, exactly, but the unusualness of it didn’t destroy the main thing we tuned in to see, which was the best baseball players in the world doing their thing.
After missing the entire 2019 season, Yoenis Cespedes hits a solo shot over the left-field wall to give the Mets a 1-0 lead over the Braves.
Braves at Mets: This was kind of a Mets dream blueprint in action, at least for one day. Jacob deGrom was dominant in his five innings, allowing one hit with eight strikeouts and easing concerns about the back tightness that popped up in summer camp. Yoenis Cespedes, in his first regular-season game in over two years, clubbed the winning home run in the seventh inning off a down-the-middle fastball from Chris Martin; and you wish a sellout crowd had been there at Citi Field to celebrate. Seth Lugo and Justin Wilson combined for five more K’s over three innings. And Edwin Diaz, a disaster last season, worked through the top of the Braves’ lineup for the save. Diaz did get away with a 3-0 fastball that Freddie Freeman hit foul deep to right field — eventually walking Freeman — but he struck out two of the other three batters he faced. — David Schoenfield
Tigers at Reds: Opening Day storylines tend to be carryovers from Hot Stove storylines, and so it has been over the past couple of days, even though the offseason by now feels like something out of the Mesozoic era. For one day, Cincinnati’s splashy winter moves seemed to pay off. Mike Moustakas singled his first two times up and hammered a 421-foot, two-run bomb off the Tigers’ David McKay. Nicholas Castellanos doubled. Shogo Akiyama stroked an RBI single.
But the best sign of all for Cincinnati? A big night for franchise cornerstone Joey Votto. Votto singled in the first and homered off Detroit lefty Matthew Boyd in the fifth. Votto hit exactly one home run off a southpaw last season in 176 plate appearances. How fun would a vintage, if abbreviated, season be from Votto? — Bradford Doolittle
Cavan Biggio’s three-run home run in the fifth inning paces the Blue Jays past the Rays 6-4 in Tampa.
Blue Jays at Rays: As the Blue Jays scrambled for a home base to play their home games — it’s going to be Buffalo, at their Triple-A park — no team faces a stranger season in this season of weird than Toronto. They survived issuing eight walks to pull this one out, including three from Hyun-Jin Ryu in his Blue Jays debut (he walked one or none in 26 of his 29 starts last year). Cavan Biggio had the big hit, a three-run home run off Charlie Morton, and that leads me to my takeaway: Don’t be shocked if Biggio has a better season than Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Biggio was better last season (2.9 WAR to 1.5) and has much more defensive value than Guerrero, who has moved over to first base.
Guerrero’s conditioning … well, I’m concerned he is this big already at 21. Will it affect his hitting? Maybe not, at least not yet. Guerrero grounded out twice, reached on an infield single, flew out and struck out. He still has to learn to get the ball in the air more to take advantage of that raw power we saw in the Home Run Derby. — Schoenfield
Brewers at Cubs: Anthony Rizzo played a gracious pandemic host at first base for the Cubs on Friday. After Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia singled in the third inning, Rizzo whipped out some hand sanitizer, offering it to the Milwaukee infielder as he arrived at first. Arcia gladly obliged, before returning it to Rizzo moments later. Rizzo didn’t get many chances to be hospitable after that — Arcia singled two more times later in the game — as Kyle Hendricks didn’t allow another baserunner in MLB’s first nine-inning Opening Day complete game since 2013. — Rogers
Bryce Harper celebrates Opening Day in style, arriving to the game in a Phillie Phanatic-themed suit and then wearing a pair of fuzzy cleats during the game.
Marlins at Phillies: During the White Sox-Twins game, longtime broadcaster Steve Stone suggested that MLB should suspend the five-inning requirement for starting pitchers to be rewarded with a win, at least for this season. (To which his usually sensible partner, Jason Benetti, responded, “Why don’t we just get rid of wins?”) You can understand Stone’s sentiment, as it is expected that a number of starters will take a while to ramp up their pitch counts. But on the first two days, at least, a few starters managed to work into the middle innings or later. Topping the list was Hendricks’ three-hitter at Wrigley Field, but don’t lose sight of the 6⅔ strong innings by Marlins starter Sandy Alcantara in Miami’s opening win at Philadelphia, which you might do if you fixate on Bryce Harper‘s Phanatic sneakers. Alcantara outpitched Aaron Nola in earning the W. Benetti might not care, but last season, Alcantara went 6-14 despite an ERA+ of 109. It’s only one game, but it was good to see one of sources of hope for better days in Miami be rewarded for a good night’s work. — Doolittle
Shane Bieber strikes out 14 batters over six scoreless innings as Cleveland beats Kansas City 2-0.
Royals at Indians: It feels like everyone might be sleeping on the Indians a bit, possibly because the Twins usurped their American League Central crown last year and then went out and added Josh Donaldson, while the White Sox are a popular pick to be this year’s breakout club. But the calling card of these Indians — starting pitching — is the big equalizer for an uneven roster.
Shane Bieber reminded everyone of that by toying with the overmatched Royals on Friday, striking out 14 of the 23 batters he faced over six shutout innings. If not for the sensible pitch-count limit in place (Bieber threw 97), he might well have challenged the nine-inning record of 20 strikeouts. Only Camilo Pascual struck out more batters on Opening Day, fanning 15 against Harmon Killebrew and the Washington Senators in 1960. Cleveland’s ballpark wasn’t the only one in which this was on display, but even in this upside-down season, it all starts with, well, the starters. — Doolittle
Orioles at Red Sox: There has been much angst and sadness in the Fens ever since the Red Sox traded the much-loved superstar Mookie Betts, so kudos to the Red Sox for their first-game blowout, and particular kudos to Nathan Eovaldi for a nice opening start after struggling with injuries last year. It’s a reminder that the Red Sox’s lineup — even without Betts — might still be pretty imposing. And I love J.D. Martinez batting in the 2-hole, with Rafael Devers third and Xander Bogaerts fourth.
But the primary takeaway here is that the Orioles are once again going to be a bad, bad baseball team. I mean, Jose Iglesias batting third? The Orioles had the first pick in the draft in 2019 and the second in 2020, and they are probably the favorite for the first pick in 2021. Really, this is why we need a draft lottery or maybe a rule that you can’t pick in the top five more than one year in a row. Something to discourage teams that aren’t trying to win from not trying to win. — Schoenfield
Rockies at Rangers: There had been some chatter from Rangers players about new Globe Life Field playing big — Globe Life Park had been one of the better home run parks in the majors, especially to right field — and one game is certainly not definitive, but a 1-0 game with just six hits will at least raise an eyebrow or two. The lack of offense probably says more about German Marquez and Lance Lynn than the ballpark. Marquez was dealing and didn’t allow a hit until the sixth inning. If only he could pitch all his games on the road; over the past two seasons, he has a 3.30 ERA on the road but 5.42 at Coors Field. As for the Rockies’ offense, we shouldn’t be surprised that they struggled to hit after spending three weeks practicing at altitude. Their .230 road batting average last year was the worst in the majors. — Schoenfield
Twins at White Sox: White Sox fans have many reasons to be excited about this year’s team, one they’ve been waiting on through three years of rebuilding. The opener did nothing to dispel hopes that this year’s ChiSox can emerge as an offensive juggernaut. Yoan Moncada had three hits and a three-run homer, defending AL batting champ Tim Anderson had two hits and exciting rookie Luis Robert lashed the first regular-season pitch he saw — a Jose Berrios curveball — to the tune of 115.8 mph for a single. Robert later added a double.
Still, the first game also suggested that for all the potential of the emerging Sox, they still aspire to be what the Minnesota Twins already are. Minnesota’s Max Kepler homered in his first two plate appearances, becoming just the second leadoff hitter since 1920 to start a season that way, the first being the Cubs’ Tuffy Rhodes in 1994. Keep an eye on these tantalizing White Sox, but don’t lose sight of the AL Central’s true behemoth in Minnesota. — Doolittle
Pirates at Cardinals: The Cardinals won, holding on with a one-run victory over Pittsburgh after Kwang-Hyun Kim got Jacob Stallings on a game-ending double play. Kim gave up two runs before escaping with the save. The back of the St. Louis bullpen is in a lot of flux at the moment, and as we’ll remind you a million times over the next couple of weeks, there isn’t much time to sort these things out in 2020. Jordan Hicks opted out, so he won’t be back. Neither Alex Reyes nor Giovanny Gallegos have joined the team because of undisclosed reasons, and Genesis Cabrera tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, last year’s primary closer, Carlos Martinez, is slated for the rotation, while offseason signee Kim — mostly a starter in Korea — will close. None of it looked too stable in Game No. 1, which was really Game No. 2.7 given the weight of each individual ballgame this season. And that’s with ace Jack Flaherty going seven innings. No reason to panic, of course, but file this as a situation to keep an eye on, because sometimes these small bullpen irregularities can snowball. — Doolittle
Mariners at Astros: Under the original, pre-pandemic schedule, the Astros would have opened at home against the Angels and then hit the road for 12 of their next 14 games — and the biggest storyline early in the season would have been not just the fan reaction to the Astros but the potential reaction from opponents in light of the cheating scandal. They also would have been without Justin Verlander, who would have missed at least the first month after groin surgery in March.
Instead, they opened against the Mariners — a team they went 18-1 against in 2019 — with Verlander on the mound, and he had a game that looked straight out of last season, when he beat out teammate Gerrit Cole for Cy Young honors. Verlander allowed just three hits in six innings, but two of those hits were home runs. As long as they remain solo shots, he should once again contend for Cy Young honors in this shortened season. Oh, yeah, the Houston lineup is still formidable even as it awaits for Yordan Alvarez to join the team. — Schoenfield
Padres slugger Eric Hosmer hits bases-clearing doubles in the sixth and seventh innings en route to a 7-2 win over the Diamondbacks.
Diamondbacks at Padres: This one is easy; those new Padres uniforms are glorious. An homage to their humble beginnings of brown and mustard yellow, but with a slightly more modern take on the color scheme, combined with a nice, pin-striped look. An instant classic. Fernando Tatis Jr. and Chris Paddack added some awesome, brightly colored cleats to complete the look. Speaking of awesome, Paddack looked sharp with six efficient innings.
But the on-field takeaway has to be Eric Hosmer‘s revamped swing. Long the king of the ground ball, Hosmer has worked to lift the ball more, and the initial payoff was remarkable. He hit three fly balls of 347-plus feet all last season against left-handers — and he had three of that distance off Madison Bumgarner (two long fly outs and a three-run double) on Friday. Hosmer then added a second three-run double with a fly ball over the left fielder’s head, setting a Padres record with six Opening Day RBIs. — Schoenfield
Giants at Dodgers (for a big, two-day takeaway): Umm, other than the Dodgers are good and the Giants are bad? One thing that’s clear is how much the Dodgers are going to benefit from having the DH. The Dodgers already had the best lineup in the National League, and now there’s no easy out or escaping a jam by facing the pitcher. No pitchers hitting also will lead to more runners on base for the top of the lineup — Mookie Betts, Max Muncy and Justin Turner on Friday, Muncy-Betts-Cody Bellinger on Thursday. It’s scary. And once you do go to the bullpen, the Dodgers have a deep bench with platoon or pinch-hitting options, if needed.
Meanwhile, the Giants hit Joe McCarthy fifth on Friday. He hit .183 in the minors last season. I almost feel sorry for Giants fans, as this storied rivalry looks like a farce in 2020 … well, until they can point to their three World Series rings in the past decade. Take that, Dodgers fans. — Schoenfield
Matt Olson obliterates the baseball for a walk-off grand slam deep to right field to lift the A’s over the Angels in 10 innings on Opening Day.
Angels at A’s: We had the first extra-innings drama of the season, which meant our first look at what strategies managers might deploy with the new rule that puts a runner on second base to start the inning. Joe Maddon elected not to bunt in the top of the 10th with pinch hitter Jared Walsh at the plate, and the probabilities seem pretty clear that the visiting team should play for multiple runs rather than a single run. Walsh hit a hard one-hopper to Matt Olson, who threw to third base to get a surprised Shohei Ohtani for the first out (Matt Chapman made a great scoop of Olson’s throw), and the Angels eventually left the bases loaded.
A’s manager Bob Melvin also bypassed the bunt with Ramon Laureano (who did try to go to right field before getting hit by a pitch), but the A’s never bunt anyway — with just seven sacrifice bunts all last season. Anyway, Chapman struck out, then there was a wild pitch, then Maddon used a five-man infield, then Olson crushed a grand slam to put a wrap on Opening Day. Small ball don’t have a chance.