One of the most exciting days of the year fro sports fans is upon us as Major League Baseball returns to a regular 162-game schedule this year after a 60-game pandemic altered season in 2020.
Several key mainstays of the Chicago Cubs could be making their final Opening Day appearance for the team in Thursday's matchup with the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates.
Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Javier Baez are each beginning their free-agent walk years and would like nothing more than to revisit the joy of five years ago, when the trio helped the franchise claim its first World Series title since 1908.
While Chicago is expected to battle Milwaukee and St. Louis for the top spot in the National League Central.
Kyle Hendricks is making his second consecutive Opening Day start for the Cubs after posting a 2.88 ERA with 64 strikeouts and eight walks in 81 1/3 innings over 12 starts last season. The 31-year-old is hoping to duplicate his success from last season's opener, when he recorded a three-hit shutout against Milwaukee on July 24.
After playing in front of cardboard cutouts last season, both teams are eager to welcome fans back on Opening Day. Wrigley Field will a limited-capacity crowd, which Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot announced last week would be expanded from 20 to 25 percent, which would mean about 10,000 fans in the park ... plus, of course, fans on the rooftops.
Chicago had a relatively quiet spring training but made news last week when manager David Ross named David Bote as the team's starting second baseman ahead of Nico Hoerner, who was optioned to Triple-A.
Hoerner remains a prominent part of the Cubs' plans, but Ross says he is excited to see what the Bote can do as an everyday starter. Bote, who turns 28 next week, earned the job after hitting .311 with three home runs and eight RBIs in 19 spring-training games.
First pitch today from Wrigley is 1:20 central time.
The St. Louis Cardinals hope adding one of baseball's best offensive performers will send them to the top of the NL Central.
Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Reds still aim for a second straight postseason berth despite losing the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner.
The quest for these division foes begins Thursday with a matchup in Cincinnati.
Despite an early August COVID-19-related disruption and ranking last in the majors in homers (51) and 26th in OPS (.694), the Cardinals were two games over .500 and made the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
Looking to boost some of those offensive numbers, the Cardinals acquired five-time All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado from Colorado. Though Arenado endured a subpar 2020 with eight homers and a .253 average in 48 games, he's clubbed 235 career home runs and makes St. Louis the apparent favorite in the Central.
Arenado, a lifetime .318 hitter with 12 homers in 43 games versus Cincinnati, should benefit from playing alongside fellow star Paul Goldschmidt. The veteran first baseman hit .304 last season, and prior to 2020, hit at least 33 homers in three straight seasons.
Opening day starter and Redbirds ace Jack Flaherty went 4-3 with a 4.91 ERA over nine starts during a disjointed 2020 campaign. He's 2-2 with a 2.48 ERA in seven career starts against the Reds but didn't face them last year.
The Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels will open the 2021 season Thursday in Anaheim, Calif., both taking with them a sense of optimism and both boasting MVP candidates.
However, for either team to make a playoff run, it needs production from more than the most prominent players. Chicago's Jose Abreu, who won the American League MVP last season, and Trout, a three-time AL MVP, can't do it alone.
There is no better example of that than the Angels and Trout, who is widely considered the best player in the majors but hasn't been on a playoff team since 2014.
Dylan Bundy will start on the mound for the Angels, coming off a good season -- his first with the Angels -- in which he went 6-3 with a 3.29 ERA in 11 starts.
Bundy is matched up against White Sox starter Lucas Giolito, who is making his second Opening Day start and had an impressive spring. Giolito had a 1.17 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 23 innings this spring, but he says it's not so much the numbers that made it successful.
Last week, projected starting LF Eloy Jimenez went down with a torn pectoral muscle trying to make a play in the outfield in a late-spring training game. Jimenez, who has been outspoken about his desire to play in the field and not DH exclusively, drew ire from fans after the injury. The Sox announced earlier this week they will be purchasing the contract of 2019 first-round pick Andrew Vaughn and will be on the opening day roster.
The White Sox hope the off-season addition of Lance Lynn helps solidy its rotation and are anticipating a bounce back season from once top-prospect Yoan Moncada.
Giolito, Flaherty and Braves opening day ace Max Fried were teammates nine years ago at Harvard-Westlake, a prestigious prep school in Los Angeles.
On Thursday, all three will be opening-day starting pitchers in the major leagues.