It’s back at last. We’ve endured the long winter, followed all the Hot Stove action and coasted through the Spring Training games to get to this point. The MLB roller coaster is ready and waiting to send us all along its twists and turns, with each team set to play 162 games over just 183 games before eight teams move on to the drama of the postseason. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.
It all starts tonight with the traditional marquee opener involving the defending World Series champions. This year that means the New York Yankees and as their opening opponents are the Boston Red Sox, it’s as big a match-up as you could imagine to get the season underway. ESPN’s tendency to show Yankee and Red Sox games at the expense of so-called lesser teams does get annoying, but I think we can forgive them in this case.
First pitch is set for 8.05 p.m. Eastern Time, which makes for a 01.05 a.m. start for us in the early hours of Monday. Baseball fans in the UK soon become accustomed to forgoing sleep to indulge in their passion, so such a start time is par for the course; however in this case we do at least have the Bank Holiday Monday to allow us to catch up on a bit of shut-eye.
Baseball and a Bank Holiday: what more could you ask for?
There are two options when it comes to following the game from the UK. It’s live on ESPN America from 01.00, with the Baseball Tonight programme being a decent warm-up from midnight (the main ESPN channel doesn’t appear to show any baseball: they are broadcasting NBA games instead). Alternatively you can use one of a variety of different platforms available on MLB.com, notably the subscription services of MLB.TV and At Bat with Gameday, or the free basic Gameday service.
However you follow it, the game should be an absolute cracker.
The Yankees will stroll into enemy territory as World Series champs and their 2010 roster looks just as strong as the one that won it all in 2009. Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui have both moved on, but they have been replaced in the hitting mix by Curtis Granderson and the returning Nick Johnson, while the core of Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Jorge Posada looks as intimidating as ever.
They have enough lumber to make up for any pitching deficiencies, but it’s hard to find many of those either. The return of Javier Vazquez via a trade with the Atlanta Braves and the decision to move Phil Hughes from the bullpen to a starting role gives them an impressive rotation that has the potential to regularly go deep into games. If a team is able to knock one of the starters out of a game, they’ll then have to contend with one of the very best bullpens in the Majors, anchored by Joba Chamberlain in the set-up role and arguably the greatest closer in the history of the sport: Mariano Rivera.
Not that the Red Sox will be worried about any of that. Their pitching staff is every bit as impressive. The addition of free agent John Lackey gives them three genuine aces alongside Josh Beckett and Jon Lester and even with Daisuke Matsuzaka likely to start the season on the Disabled List, they can round out their rotation with Clay Buchholz and Tim Wakefield. Last year’s ALDS horror show aside, closer Jonathan Papelbon has been outstanding for Boston over the last five seasons and the likes of Daniel Bard and Hideki Okajima will provide an effective bridge to him.
The departure of free agent Jason Bay to the Mets will hurt their offense a bit as he hasn’t been replaced with a like-for-like major power threat, but General Manager Theo Epstein has made a raft of clever moves to bring in solid everyday players in Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre and Marco Scutaro. Anyone who looks at their projected batting lineup and sees a group that could struggle to score enough runs is borderline crazy. Add in the potential to be exceptional defensively and the Red Sox are going to be very hard to beat.
And they aren’t the only teams capable of winning in the AL East. The Tampa Bay Rays are flying under the radar as they don’t have the big names and big bucks of their more illustrious division rivals; however if they can keep their main players on the field and productive, they’ll be right there with them when we enter the final month of the regular season.
September seems a very long way off right now though. Even looking ahead to tomorrow’s exciting slate of games seems foolish when we have such a promising game to look forward to tonight. It’s the best two teams in the Majors, two of the best starting pitchers on the mound in Sabathia and Beckett, a frenzied Fenway crowd and one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports. All of the ingredients are in place for a classic Opening Night and I’ll bet that the Yankees and Red Sox will cook us up a treat.