The Week Ahead: Hot matchups, big debuts, and a new ace in Philly

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halladay-100404.standard[1].jpgThe 2010 season started beautifully on Sunday night with a thriller between the Red Sox and Yankees. If you could ignore the dog-and-pony show that comes with an ESPN Sunday night telecast, you were able to enjoy quite the treat – even if you don’t have a horse in the Yankees-Red Sox race.

But believe it or not, there are more than two teams in Major League Baseball, and there are a lot of juicy tidbits to watch for in this first week. We have new faces in new places. We have some stellar pitching matchups. And we have some teams trying to live up to early high expectations as the season begins.

Let’s start with who won’t be around as the action heats up. In Texas, Ian Kinsler will not be suiting up. Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran of the Mets are not yet ready to take the field. The Mariners will have to wait at least a couple weeks to see new ace Cliff Lee take the mound, and the Diamondbacks (Brandon Webb), Astros (Lance Berkman) and Rockies (Huston Street) are also among the teams that will be without key players as the season begins.

But even with the injuries, there is plenty of fun to look forward to this week. Phillies fans, enjoying two straight World Series appearances, will unveal their new ace Roy Halladay on Monday as he faces the Washington Nationals. They’re giddy about Halladay in Philly, and rightly so, and he is a big reason some are picking the Phillies to win it all in 2010.

Among other debuts to watch for are Chone Figgins (Mariners), Ben Sheets (A’s, pitching Monday), Orlando Hudson (Twins), John Lackey (Red Sox, Wednesday), Rich Harden and Vlad Guerrero (Rangers), and Hideki Matsui and Joel Pineiro (Angels).

There are some nice pitching matchups in the first week. The Marlins start their young ace Josh Johnson on Monday against the Mets’ Johan Santana, and two-time NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum of the Giants faces off against the Astros’ Roy Oswalt. But the top matchup comes Monday morning when Kansas City’s reigning Cy Young winner Zack Greinke squares off against a man who could easily win it in 2010, Detroit fire-baller Justin Verlander. I pity the hitters in that one.

So settle in and buckle your safety belts. It’s going to be a fun week.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Yankees at Red Sox, April 4, 6-7:
There are only 17 more games between these rivals this season, so enjoy them while you can. Yes, these series get overhyped by ESPN. So what? They’re still fun to watch.

Twins at Angels, April 5-8: A couple of likely playoff teams square off in Los Angeles. And the Twins get one last chance to stay warm before returning home to open their new outdoor ballpark.

Cubs at Braves, April 5, 7-8: Both of these teams are expecting to contend in 2010, so there’s a nice bit of pressure to start fast in this season-opening series.

Yankees at Rays, April 9-11: The Rays think they can make it a three-team race in the AL East. Here’s they’re chance to prove it.

Cardinals at Brewers, April 9-11: Pujols, Holliday and company will test the Brewers’ revamped pitching staff. And Milwaukee gets an early look at whether it can get back into contention in 2010.

ON THE TUBE
Monday, 1:10 p.m. ET:
Cardinals at Reds (ESPN)
Monday, 2:05 p.m.: Indians at White Sox (ESPN2)
Monday, 4:10 p.m.: Cubs at Braves (ESPN)
Monday, 7:05 p.m.: Giants at Astros (ESPN2)
Monday, 10:05 p.m.: Twins at Angels (ESPN2)
Wednesday, 7:10 p.m.: Yankees at Red Sox (ESPN2)
*Saturday, 3:10 p.m.: Mariners at Rangers (FOX)
*Saturday, 3:10 p.m.: Yankees at Rays (FOX)
*Saturday, 3:10 p.m.: Cardinals at Brewers (FOX)
Sunday, 1:40 p.m.: Yankees at Rays (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Cardinals at Brewers (ESPN)
*Check local listings

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MLB crowds jump from ’21, still below pre-pandemic levels

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PHOENIX — Even with the homer heroics of sluggers like Aaron Judge and Albert Pujols, Major League Baseball wasn’t able to coax fans to ballparks at pre-pandemic levels this season, though attendance did jump substantially from the COVID-19 affected campaign in 2021.

The 30 MLB teams drew nearly 64.6 million fans for the regular season that ended Wednesday, which is up from the 45.3 million who attended games in 2021, according to baseball-reference.com. This year’s numbers are still down from the 68.5 million who attended games in 2019, which was the last season that wasn’t affected by the pandemic.

The 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers led baseball with 3.86 million fans flocking to Dodger Stadium for an average of 47,672 per contest. The Oakland Athletics – who lost 102 games, play in an aging stadium and are the constant subject of relocation rumors – finished last, drawing just 787,902 fans for an average of less than 10,000 per game.

The St. Louis Cardinals finished second, drawing 3.32 million fans. They were followed by the Yankees (3.14 million), defending World Series champion Braves (3.13 million) and Padres (2.99 million).

The Toronto Blue Jays saw the biggest jump in attendance, rising from 805,901 fans to about 2.65 million. They were followed by the Cardinals, Yankees, Mariners, Dodgers, and Mets, which all drew more than a million fans more than in 2021.

The Rangers and Reds were the only teams to draw fewer fans than in 2021.

Only the Rangers started the 2021 season at full capacity and all 30 teams weren’t at 100% until July. No fans were allowed to attend regular season games in 2020.

MLB attendance had been declining slowly for years – even before the pandemic – after hitting its high mark of 79.4 million in 2007. This year’s 64.6 million fans is the fewest in a non-COVID-19 season since the sport expanded to 30 teams in 1998.

The lost attendance has been balanced in some ways by higher viewership on the sport’s MLB.TV streaming service. Viewers watched 11.5 billion minutes of content in 2022, which was a record high and up nearly 10% from 2021.