Baseball is back: What to watch for in season opener vs. Yankees

The wait is over. After over four months of no major American sports, baseball makes its return today with the World Series champion Nationals taking on the New York Yankees at 7 pm.

A single game won’t answer every question about how the team will perform this season, much less the season opener, but in a 60-game season, every game will mean much more in the race to the playoffs. The Yankees boast a strong lineup, and the Nats’ performance against the Bronx Bombers will be an early test in the quest to repeat.

While it’ll be nice to sit back and enjoy the sights and sounds of real-life, competitive baseball, there are several things to look out for in the opening series with the Yankees this weekend.

Will Scherzer shake off his rusty return?

Max Scherzer will take the mound against Gerrit Cole this evening, replicating the pitching matchup for Game 1 of the World Series, except this time Cole will be in a different uniform. The 2019 AL Cy Young runner-up signed the biggest contract for a pitcher in history this offseason and will look to bring the Yankees their 28th World Series title.

The Nats got the best of Cole in Game 1 in October, but lost against him in Game 5. How they perform against him tonight will be worth watching, but the real pitcher to watch is Scherzer. We last saw him put out a gritty, five-inning performance in Game 7, resulting in the team’s first ever championship.

The three-time Cy Young winner had a rough go when he made his first real appearance in non-intrasquad action. In a scrimmage against the Phillies on July 18, Scherzer got shelled, allowing seven runs in the first two innings, including two three-run home runs by Didi Gregorius and former teammate Bryce Harper, respectively. He settled down over the next three innings, but it was a concerning sight even for a scrimmage.

As one of the fiercest competitors in the game, there’s no question that Mad Max will be as mentally prepared as anyone when he gets on the mound tonight, but against a healthy Yankees lineup (a rare sight to behold), will the rust persist, or will he shut things down as usual? We can only sit and watch.

Is Kieboom ready to play at third full-time?

The Nats lost their best all-around player this offseason, as Anthony Rendon signed with the Los Angeles Angels fresh off an NL MVP finalist season. Rumors floated around about the team bringing in a high-caliber replacement, such as former MVPs Josh Donaldson or Kris Bryant, but the team directed its money into other resources.

Instead, the organization’s top prospect Carter Kieboom is expected to slide in at third base. He struggled in 10 games of major league action in 2019, and is not a third baseman by trade, which could lead to growing pains early in the year.

The lineup cards have not come out as of the time this was posted, and there’s a chance that Kieboom starts the season on the bench with veteran infielder Asdrúbal Cabrera opening the season at third. Whether he starts tonight or not, Kieboom will be given reps at some point, and in a shortened season with a slimmer margin for error, the team will need him to fall into place sooner rather than later.

How much will the lineup miss Rendon’s presence, and who will step up in his place?

As mentioned, Rendon brought so much to the Nats’ offense, and the team will need to replace it elsewhere. Kieboom is just a rookie and can’t be relied on to make up for all of that production, so other players will have to chip in. So who will that be?

Juan Soto is one of the first players to come to mind, but as someone who was already playing at a high level, it would be humanly impossible for his production to jump significantly higher from where it already is.

Howie Kendrick, the team’s October hero is one of the best pure hitters in the game, but as a 37-year-old likely getting limited playing time at DH, he can’t shoulder all the responsibility either.

Really the biggest X-factors are Victor Robles, Trea Turner and Starlin Castro. Robles is already a defensive stud, so his biggest room for growth is at the plate. He turned in solid numbers as a rookie in 2019, but his bat practically disappeared by the World Series. If there was any time for Robles to turn things up offensively, it would be now. He won’t be a slugger by any means, but the more Robles can get on base and use his speed on the base paths, the easier it’ll be to replace Rendon’s production.

Turner, meanwhile, is just 27 years old but is already one of the longest-tenured position players on the team. Like Robles, Turner isn’t a huge home run hitter (although he has hit plenty of big shots in crucial moments), but a boost in offensive numbers would be huge for the team. Turner hit just under .300 last season with practically nine fingers, and he matched his career-high home run total (19) in 40 fewer games. At the peak of his physical prime, Turner could break out in a big way.

It feels like it’s been a long time since Castro was playing at an All-Star level, but he last made the Midsummer Classic in 2017 with the Yankees. He hasn’t been in the limelight in recent years as he played for the lowly Miami Marlins, but he quietly set career-highs in home runs (22) and RBI (86) last season while slashing .270/.300/.436. At 30 years old in a much better lineup, it would be no surprise if Castro experienced a renaissance of sorts. He has been batting third in the order in recent exhibition games, which would be prime territory for great numbers.

More questions will surface as the season goes on, and while the prospects for this season are uncertain, it’ll be nice to bask in the World Series title for one more day before defense mode officially kicks in. Go 1-0 everyday, starting tonight at 7.

Cover Photo Credit: Michael Reaves/Getty Images

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