In his five-plus seasons as a mainstay of the Chicago Cubs' starting rotation, Kyle Hendricks has accomplished quite a bit. He's pitched Game 7 of the World Series, won an ERA title and never finished a season with a WHIP over 1.19.
But Friday night's season opener with the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field will mark a first in what so far has been a nice career.
First-year manager David Ross tapped Hendricks to make the Opening Night start, breaking Jon Lester's string of three straight Opening Day starts for the Cubs.
Coming off an 11-10 season in which he posted a 3.46 ERA, Hendricks earned the coveted assignment based on his apparent readiness to go deep into a game. During an intrasquad game on July 14, Hendricks needed just 70 pitches to negotiate 6 1/3 innings.
By contrast, Yu Darvish, who will take the ball on Saturday, used 60 pitches to get through only 3 2/3 innings. With starting pitchers' endurance a big concern in this shortened season after an extended break due to COVID-19 concerns, Hendricks' efficiency and potential to go deep into a game was attractive to Ross.
While Chicago tries to take its first step towards reaching the playoffs after missing last year, Milwaukee eyes a third straight postseason appearance. The Brewers figure to score a lot of runs with a power-packed lineup but must figure out a way to get good starts from a largely unproven rotation.
Manager Craig Counsell will hand the ball to Brandon Woodruff for the opener. The hard-throwing right-hander enjoyed a breakout season last year, although it was chopped up by injury. Woodruff went 11-3 with a 3.62 ERA over 22 starts and 121 2/3 innings, whiffing 143 and posting a solid 1.14 WHIP.
Brewers star Christian Yelich has won the past two NL batting titles while clubbing 80 homers during the span. He was MVP in 2018 and finished second last season when his campaign was cut short by a fractured kneecap on Sept. 10.
Pitchers who finished strong last season will make the Opening Day starts when the St. Louis Cardinals host the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday.
Jack Flaherty (11-8, 2.75 ERA in 2019) was the Cardinals' clear choice to launch the season at Busch Stadium. He became the staff ace last season while going 7-2 with a 0.91 ERA in 15 second-half outings.
With pitchers Chris Archer and Jameson Taillon sidelined by season-ending injuries, Joe Musgrove (11-12, 4.44 ERA last season) got the opening nod from new Pirates manager Derek Shelton.
Musgrove made some mechanical adjustments with his delivery late last season. He went 3-0 with a 2.89 ERA and 32 strikeouts in his last five starts.
Flaherty was 1-0 with a 0.60 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 15 innings against the Pirates last season. He is 4-1 with a 1.84 ERA in seven career starts against them.
Pittsburgh's Kevin Newman (2-for-6, double, RBI) and Josh Bell (3-for-12, two doubles, a homer, two runs and two RBIs) have enjoyed some career success against Flaherty.
Musgrove is looking to reverse his fortunes against the Cardinals. He went 0-4 with a 10.00 ERA against them last season, and his career numbers (1-6, 7.05 ERA in seven starts) aren't much better.
St. Louis' Paul Goldschmidt (6-for-12, a homer, six walks, five runs, three RBIs, 1.500 on-base-plus-slugging percentage), Dexter Fowler (6-for-13, two doubles, triple, homer, three walks, four runs, six RBIs, 1.545 OPS) and Yadier Molina (3-for-5, two doubles, three runs, RBI) have hit Musgrove hard.
The Pirates are opening the season without outfielder Gregory Polanco, closer Keone Kela and third baseman Ke'Bryan Hayes. Each tested positive for COVID-19. Infielder Kevin Kramer (hip surgery) and catcher Luke Maile (broken finger) are out for the season.
Kyle Crick could close games in Kela's absence.
The Cardinals are missing utility player Brad Miller (sore heel), late-inning reliever Giovanny Gallegos (delayed camp arrival), closer Jordan Hicks (medical opt-out) and pitchers Genesis Cabrera and Alex Reyes, who missed much of summer camp after positive COVID-19 tests.
Newcomer Kwang Hyun Kim will open the season as the Cardinals' closer. He struck out the side in the ninth inning of a 6-3 exhibition victory over the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday.
Prolific power steered the Minnesota Twins to an American League Central division title last season, with eight players blasting at least 20 home runs as the club smacked a major league record 307.
Minnesota scored 51 percent of its franchise-record 939 runs via the long ball in 2019, and then added slugging third baseman Josh Donaldson in the offseason.
While the Twins realize they won't come close to replicating those offensive numbers during a 2020 campaign shortened to 60 games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the club nonetheless remains confident about its versatility. Beginning with Friday's season opener against the White Sox in Chicago, the Twins know they will need that trait in their bid to repeat as division champs.
Minnesota earned its first 100-win season since 1965 a year ago behind a 50-26 record within the division. That included a 13-6 mark against the White Sox, whose fusion of offseason veteran additions such as catcher Yasmani Grandal and left-hander Dallas Keuchel with a budding young core featuring reigning AL batting champion Tim Anderson has the team primed to unseat the Twins.
White Sox ace right-hander Lucas Giolito (14-9, 3.41 ERA in 2019) is set to oppose Twins righty Jose Berrios (14-8, 3.68) on Friday. Giolito enters with a 4-5 record and 4.58 ERA in 10 career starts against the Twins, while Berrios is 11-2 with a 2.40 ERA in 14 career starts against Chicago.
The White Sox toted plenty of confidence into spring training, and that hardly waned during the nearly four-month hiatus prompted by the pandemic.