NL Central, AL East rivals face off before World Series rematch on Opening Night
By Chad Thornburg
It's finally here. After months of speculation, roster shuffling and exhibitions, the regular season has arrived. All 30 Major League clubs are even at 0-0 with a fresh start, and on Sunday, the 2016 season will begin to take shape. Six teams are scheduled to take the field, and when they do, the results will count as the first marks in the standings.
The long-awaited slate features a nationally televised tripleheader, beginning with the Cardinals and Pirates in Pittsburgh on ESPN and MLB.TV at 1 p.m. ET, followed by the Blue Jays at the Rays on ESPN2 and MLB.TV at 4 p.m. The action concludes with the main event -- a World Series rematch of the Mets at the Royals on Opening Night at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN.
It's a must-see start to the season, and only the beginning of this week's binge watching. Other clubs spring into action with 12 games on Monday, but the party begins today.
Here's a closer look at the three contests that will open the 2016 season:
National League Central showdown: STL@PIT, 1 p.m. ET on ESPN, MLB.TV
The Pirates were one of last season's winningest teams with a 98-64 record. Unfortunately for them, they share a division with the Cardinals, who won 100 games for the NL Central crown. The Bucs will get their first opportunity to vault ahead of the division champs in 2016, as they host the Cards at PNC Park for the first of 19 regular-season meetings.
"Every year, we're a little more hungry," Pittsburgh reliever Tony Watson said. "Ninety-eight wins is nothing to hang our heads about, but we definitely want to win a division, raise a World Series flag in Pittsburgh."
Neither club made significant adjustments to its roster this winter, so most of the same key players return to this division rivalry once again. Right-hander Adam Wainwright will toe the rubber for the Cardinals, 11 months removed from rupturing his Achilles tendon. The injury was supposed to sideline him for 9-12 months; Wainwright, instead, returned five months later to pitch out of the bullpen. The veteran ace is now set for his fifth career Opening Day start, the second most in franchise history.
For the Pirates, Francisco Liriano draws the starting nod for the third straight year. The 32-year-old southpaw will anchor the Pittsburgh rotation yet again, striving for consistency and his first 200-inning season.
Ascending stars toe the rubber: TOR@TB, 4 p.m. on ESPN2, MLB.TV
In Sunday's second bout, the defending American League East champions will try to fend off a retooled Rays squad at Tropicana Field. The matchup features a pair of young aces on the mound: Toronto's Marcus Stroman and Tampa Bay's Chris Archer.
Stroman assumes ace status for the Jays after David Price departed in free agency this winter. The right-hander made an earlier-than-expected return from ACL surgery on his left knee last year, and he was stellar in limited action, going 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA. He'll look to build upon that late-season success, while his Jays aim to get back in the postseason for the second consecutive year after a 21-season drought.
Archer, meanwhile, will lead a Rays roster featuring a few new faces -- including offseason additions Brad Miller, Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce -- before the home crowd. The 27-year-old righty ascended among the game's top pitchers last season, earning his first All-Star nod.
The contest will also feature a special guest in MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, marking the first time in Tampa Bay history that a commissioner will be in attendance for a season opener.
World Series rematch: NYM@KC, 8:30 p.m. on ESPN
The Royals open their defense of the World Series crown against the same team they defeated to claim it. It's a rematch of last year's Fall Classic, even featuring the same starting pitching matchup -- Kansas City's Edinson Volquez vs. New York's Matt Harvey -- from the Royals' title-clinching Game 5 victory. It's the first time ever that two starting pitchers from the final game of a World Series will meet again in the next season's opener.
A brief blood clot scare last week nearly prevented Harvey from making the start, but he's since been medically cleared to take the ball to begin the Mets' season. Now two years removed from Tommy John surgery, he draws his first career Opening Day assignment. New York manager Terry Collins said he expects Harvey to be at his best for the opener.
"There are guys that rise to the occasion," Collins said. "There are guys that when they're put in a tough spot, they pick up their game. And he's one of those kinds of guys."
For Volquez, it'll be his fourth such start. The veteran emerged as the ace of Kansas City's rotation last season and was on the mound for the Royals' wins in Game 1 and 5 of the World Series.
"He's been the heart of our staff," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "He's a guy who has deserved it."
Chad Thornburg is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.