Opening day matchups that are most worthy of fans’ attention

Opening day is just one of 162 games, as the grizzled vets will tell you. But it’s the only one when the bunting is hung, the ballparks are packed and butterflies are fluttering inside us all.
A look at nine openers where the buzz is certain to be big:

Roy Halladay knows the drill when the nation's chief executive is in the house.
Roy Halladay knows the drill when the nation’s chief executive is in the house.

Phillies at Nationals

Roy Halladay will be starting his eighth consecutive opening day, but his first for a team favored to win the pennant. "There’s a lot more excitement for me going into the season knowing it’s a competitive team," he said at a news conference, while trying to downplay the hype of opening day. He can do that. He’s already followed President Obama to the mound before, at least year’s All-Star Game.

Mariners at Athletics

Ben Sheets didn’t seem bothered much by his 11.20 ERA during spring training. After not pitching last season, he was satisfied to make it through March healthy and prepared to start earning the $10 million the Athletics are paying him. He hopes this start goes better than the only other one he’s made in Oakland. In 2002 with the Brewers, he lasted only four innings in an 8-0 loss.

Twins at Angels

Much of the focus will be on the Angels’ new leadoff hitter, Erick Aybar, and the Twins’ new closer, Jon Rauch, but don’t overlook Minnesota’s starting pitcher. Scott Baker was on the disabled list last opening day but returned in mid-April and emerged as his club’s top starter. Now comes the first opening day assignment for a 28-year-old who could be the ace the Twins have lacked.

"Let’s just say he’s not a guy we’re worried about," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He doesn’t have the stuff like a Halladay but he can be pretty good. He’s going to get his 15 wins and if we score like we’re capable of, he’ll get more."

Cardinals at Reds

In his first game after landing the biggest free-agent contract of the offseason, Matt Holliday has to face a pitcher he’d rather not. Aaron Harang has held Holliday to one single in 16 at-bats. The Reds’ right-hander hasn’t had quite as much success against the guy batting in front of Holliday, Albert Pujols. In 54 meetings, Pujols has three homers, 10 RBIs and a .296 average against Harang.

Cubs at Braves

Atlanta fans get their first look at native son Jason Heyward in a Braves uniform this afternoon. They will not have to wait long to see if he can hold his own against the elite. The Cubs will start Carlos Zambrano, who appears ready to put behind his disappointing 2009. So does Braves starter Derek Lowe, who will debut a windup he spent all winter and spring training retooling.

Rockies at Brewers

By last October, there was no doubt Ubaldo Jimenez was the Rockies’ No. 1 starter. Last year’s opening day starter Aaron Cook recognized and classily acknowledged as much when he asked to be in the room when manager Jim Tracy told Jimenez he would be starting on opening day. The Rockies also have a change to make in the ninth inning, as Franklin Morales takes over for injured Huston Street.

Colorado hopes that move is temporary. The Brewers also will be giving the ball to a first-time opening day starter, Yovani Gallardo.

Blue Jays at Rangers

Much has changed in the past year for Scott Feldman. His first outing last year came in relief; he allowed four runs in 2 1/3 innings. But when he got the chance to start later in April, his bad outings became seldom. He won 17 games and was one of the main reasons the Rangers contended into September. In the past week, Feldman has agreed to a contract extension and been named an opening day starter, just the third homegrown Ranger to be given that distinction since 1995.

Giants at Astros

Don’t be alarmed if Tim Lincecum doesn’t dominate the Astros, even if they are without Lance Berkman. Lincecum is coming off a so-so spring as he works to fine-tune a delivery with a lot of moving parts. Lincecum lasted only three innings in his first opening day start a year ago; that didn’t hurt him much — he went on to win his second consecutive NL Cy Young Award.

Tigers at Royals

Detroit is expected to start two players, center fielder Austin Jackson and second baseman Scott Sizemore, who never have appeared in a big-league game. They could be in for a rude welcome: AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke is starting for the Royals.

Enjoy your opening day, rooks. And don’t worry if it doesn’t go well. It’s just one of 162.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Opening day is just one of 162 games, as the grizzled vets will tell you. But it’s the only one when the bunting is hung, the ballparks are packed and butterflies are fluttering inside us all.
A look at nine openers where the buzz is certain to be big:

Roy Halladay knows the drill when the nation's chief executive is in the house.
Roy Halladay knows the drill when the nation’s chief executive is in the house.

Phillies at Nationals

Roy Halladay will be starting his eighth consecutive opening day, but his first for a team favored to win the pennant. "There’s a lot more excitement for me going into the season knowing it’s a competitive team," he said at a news conference, while trying to downplay the hype of opening day. He can do that. He’s already followed President Obama to the mound before, at least year’s All-Star Game.

Mariners at Athletics

Ben Sheets didn’t seem bothered much by his 11.20 ERA during spring training. After not pitching last season, he was satisfied to make it through March healthy and prepared to start earning the $10 million the Athletics are paying him. He hopes this start goes better than the only other one he’s made in Oakland. In 2002 with the Brewers, he lasted only four innings in an 8-0 loss.

Twins at Angels

Much of the focus will be on the Angels’ new leadoff hitter, Erick Aybar, and the Twins’ new closer, Jon Rauch, but don’t overlook Minnesota’s starting pitcher. Scott Baker was on the disabled list last opening day but returned in mid-April and emerged as his club’s top starter. Now comes the first opening day assignment for a 28-year-old who could be the ace the Twins have lacked.

"Let’s just say he’s not a guy we’re worried about," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He doesn’t have the stuff like a Halladay but he can be pretty good. He’s going to get his 15 wins and if we score like we’re capable of, he’ll get more."

Cardinals at Reds

In his first game after landing the biggest free-agent contract of the offseason, Matt Holliday has to face a pitcher he’d rather not. Aaron Harang has held Holliday to one single in 16 at-bats. The Reds’ right-hander hasn’t had quite as much success against the guy batting in front of Holliday, Albert Pujols. In 54 meetings, Pujols has three homers, 10 RBIs and a .296 average against Harang.

Cubs at Braves

Atlanta fans get their first look at native son Jason Heyward in a Braves uniform this afternoon. They will not have to wait long to see if he can hold his own against the elite. The Cubs will start Carlos Zambrano, who appears ready to put behind his disappointing 2009. So does Braves starter Derek Lowe, who will debut a windup he spent all winter and spring training retooling.

Rockies at Brewers

By last October, there was no doubt Ubaldo Jimenez was the Rockies’ No. 1 starter. Last year’s opening day starter Aaron Cook recognized and classily acknowledged as much when he asked to be in the room when manager Jim Tracy told Jimenez he would be starting on opening day. The Rockies also have a change to make in the ninth inning, as Franklin Morales takes over for injured Huston Street.

Colorado hopes that move is temporary. The Brewers also will be giving the ball to a first-time opening day starter, Yovani Gallardo.

Blue Jays at Rangers

Much has changed in the past year for Scott Feldman. His first outing last year came in relief; he allowed four runs in 2 1/3 innings. But when he got the chance to start later in April, his bad outings became seldom. He won 17 games and was one of the main reasons the Rangers contended into September. In the past week, Feldman has agreed to a contract extension and been named an opening day starter, just the third homegrown Ranger to be given that distinction since 1995.

Giants at Astros

Don’t be alarmed if Tim Lincecum doesn’t dominate the Astros, even if they are without Lance Berkman. Lincecum is coming off a so-so spring as he works to fine-tune a delivery with a lot of moving parts. Lincecum lasted only three innings in his first opening day start a year ago; that didn’t hurt him much — he went on to win his second consecutive NL Cy Young Award.

Tigers at Royals

Detroit is expected to start two players, center fielder Austin Jackson and second baseman Scott Sizemore, who never have appeared in a big-league game. They could be in for a rude welcome: AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke is starting for the Royals.

Enjoy your opening day, rooks. And don’t worry if it doesn’t go well. It’s just one of 162.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

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