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Opening Day 2018: Who’s under most pressure this season?

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Opening Day Eve is the most optimistic time for every team, every player and every fan. If you don’t believe me, go check out the Orioles fans talking themselves into contending for the division title in yesterday’s comments section. God love the optimism that only the beginning of a baseball season can bring!

Deep down, though, there are a lot of folks in and around Major League Baseball who are entering the season under pressure, with a lot to prove or a lot to lose. Or some combination of all three. Who is under the gun in 2018?

Giancarlo Stanton

This seems crazy, right? He’s the reigning NL MVP, he hit 59 homers last year and he’s going from a trash fire of an organization in Miami to the flagship of MLB’s fleet in the Bronx. He’s been all smiles this spring and for good reason.

True, but this is also New York. This city has held its stars — especially its imported stars — to a higher standard than is at all reasonable for years and years. Two players who carried the Yankees on their backs to World Series titles — Reggie Jackson and Alex Rodriguez — know all too well what high expectations can do in the Big Apple. If Stanton slumps and the Yankees with him, you KNOW there will be columns saying “the Yankees did just fine with only Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez hitting big last year. Why isn’t our $300 million man carrying his weight?” It’ll be an unfair attack if and when it comes, but since when has that stopped the New York press corps? All of that aside, there is ALWAYS more pressure in New York than anywhere else. Stanton will feel it by default.

Aaron Boone and Alex Cora

The Yankees and Red Sox each had great seasons last year. The Yankees and Red Sox each ended their seasons with a loss and watched their conquerers — the Astros in both cases — go on to glory. The Yankees and Red Sox each got rid of their old managers and brought in new blood. Both Boone, the Yankees’ new skipper, and Cora in Boston will be expected to improve their teams’ results, which means the Red Sox expect a deep playoff run and the Yankees are basically writing “World Series title or Bust!” on the back window of the team bus. Again, this is somewhat unfair pressure given the randomness of the postseason, but since when has fair had anything to do with expectations in Boston and New York? Things will be particularly tough in the case of Boone if the Yankees even mildly disappoint. “We brought back basically the same team that went to Game 7 of the ALCS AND added the best slugger in a generation and you lost in the ALDS?!” will be a pretty irresistible line of attack for many.

Bryce Harper

He’s one of the best talents in all of baseball. He already has an MVP Award under his belt. He is set to be a free agent after this season. He also, however, has a history of injuries that have derailed what would’ve otherwise been great years. I suspect he’ll get a record-setting free agent deal even if he does miss a month with a hamstring or something, but there’s still a lot riding on him hitting the market after a monster year, especially in an age when free agents as a whole are taking a beating. Harper obviously wants to do the best he can do regardless, but several hundred ballplayers are counting on him to raise the salary ceiling for those who follow him into the free market.

Matt Harvey

There was a time when many considered him the best young pitcher in the game. Since undergoing Tommy John surgery, however, Harvey has been unable to get back to his 2013 form, suffering major injury after major injury and, on occasion, showing an immaturity that does not suit a would-be superstar. At age 29, with his recent track record, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever be the star he once figured to be, but with a strong season he has a chance to avert a premature end to his career and to at least begin to mount a respectable third act.

The Dodgers and Nationals

All of the so-called Super Teams have high expectations, but the Cubs and Astros are the last two World Series champions and, among the others, the Dodgers and Nationals probably have a slightly shorter window of competitiveness than the other clubs. Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy could be gone next year. Justin Turner isn’t getting any younger. Obviously each club could reload via the stocked free agent market this coming winter, but they’re each loaded now. I suppose ANY sort of a playoff run will be progress for the Nationals given that they’ve never escaped the NLDS, but with this potentially being their last year with Harper, they really want to make a strong push for a title. The Dodgers, obviously, came one game away from winning it all last year, but they don’t give out awards for being the best team over a 4-5 year stretch. To make their mark, they need to hoist a trophy.

The Giants

The Giants were an old team entering last year, but one still thought to have gas in the tank in their mini-dynasty. A freak injury to Madison Bumgarner and a bunch of bad luck resulted in them being the worst team in the game. A lot of teams — especially in this era — would’ve just punted this past winter, tore things down and begun a rebuild. The Giants added players and enter 2018 as an old team with designs on competitiveness once again. It’s admirable that the front office and ownership is going for it, but I doubt they’ll get a third chance. If 2018 is a bust, the Giants will be under pressure to change course after this season which, obviously, puts pressure on them this season. That it has begun with Madison Bumgarner, once again, suffering a freak injury, is not a good omen.

Shohei Ohtani

On one level, since he’s making almost no money and is under team control forever, there isn’t a ton of objective pressure on Ohtani to shine in his first season for the Los Angeles Angels. On another level, the amount of press attention on him — both from the Japanese press and the American press — is insane, and a person nicknamed “The Japanese Babe Ruth” is inevitably going to be under serious pressure to perform. In spring the performance lacked, but he kept his composure admirably. We’ll see soon how he does once the games count. Both with the performance and the composure.

Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette

The Orioles manager and general manager have had considerable success in Baltimore, but after a disappointing season last year, they both enter a lame duck campaign which many doubt either will survive. Their past success and excellent reputations will always keep them from ignominy and unemployment, but on-the-field success or failure in 2018 may very well determine if they’ll get another job in their respective positions again or if, rather, they’ll each have to board the Special Assistant Express for the remainder of their careers.

Gabe Kapler

Taking over as the manager for a rebuilding team that is poised to turn the corner is a pretty good gig. Doing so AND having that club make some pretty aggressive offseason moves like the Phillies did this winter (e.g. signing Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana and putting top prospect Scott Kingery on the Opening Day roster) is even better. Still, Kapler has something to prove to a lot of people, it seems. People who have, for several years now, grumbled about him being unconventional or weird or something less than a “baseball man.” I have argued on many occasions — see that link, for example — that this is baloney, but the talking point still exists. Almost no one who played in the bigs for as long as Kapler has, managed in the minors as Kapler has and worked in a front office as Kapler has is subject to this sort of treatment, but it feels like Kapler will be looked at askance unless or until he shows that he can make a double switch without the aid of a life coach, a mantra and an oil drum full of coconut oil. Which, now that I think about it, might take some of the pressure off. After all, if the expectations are so stupidly low, they’re easy to meet, right?

Bryan Price

I don’t think there’s much pressure in being the manager of the Cincinnati Reds compared to being the manager of a lot of other teams, but Price is entering his fifth season at the helm of a club that has won 76, 64, 68 and 68 games over the past four years. At some point someone in the front office is going to catch heat for a rebuild that doesn’t show forward momentum, and when people in the front office feel pressure, the first person to feel pain is usually the manager. Beyond all of that, it’s rare for someone to lose for five straight seasons and keep his job regardless of the rebuild schedule, especially if he does not have a track record of past success.  Which is to say that Price could really use an 81-81 season with at least a non-laughable argument lasting a couple of weeks past July that the Reds could get the second Wild Card.

Obviously everyone in baseball is under some amount of pressure. Pressure to perform, pressure to win, pressure to not get caught up in some dumb and distracting controversy. But from where I’m sitting, these guys and teams are the ones with the most on the line.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights. The Orioles-Indians one is last and is really, really long, but I suspect a lot of you will appreciate it.

Pirates 2, Cubs 1: Adam Frazier socked a two-out, pinch-hit, 11th inning walkoff homer to earn a split for the Buccos. That it was a split was a minor miracle, really, given that the Cubs scored exactly four runs in the series. One run each game, in fact. They just happened to win 1-0 on both Thursday and Friday.

Rockies 4, Braves 2: Atlanta won five in a row last week and claimed first place and then went and got swept in a four-game series at home this weekend. Not that beating good teams is new to the Rockies. Colorado is 30-16 since June 26 and all 46 of those games have been played against winning teams. Or, at the very least, teams which were winning teams at the time. DJ LeMahieu was a killer this weekend. He hit a tie-breaking homer in extra innings on Saturday night and then he homered again here. Braves manager Brian Snitker, commenting on four straight losses on the heels of a five-game winning streak:

“In this business, every time you think you have something figured out, you get kicked right in the teeth”

If he’d have changed “this business” to “life” and then he’d really be dropping truth bombs. Lucky for him sometimes, even when you get kicked in the teeth, things don’t go as bad as they could, though. Such as the Phillies losing two in a row to the Mets and missing out on an excellent chance to make up more ground.

Marlins 12, Nationals 1: The Nats, meanwhile, dropped their seventh game in their last ten. They could do nothing against Jose Urena — and lucky they didn’t, or else maybe he’d try to hurt injure them — who tossed a complete game, allowing just the one run on only two hits. Starlin Castro had five hits and scored three times. JT Riddle and J.T. Realmuto each homered and drove in three, proving once and for all that the periods, or lack thereof, in their first names have no bearing on their baseball ability. That’s just science.

Rangers 4, Angels 2: Rougned Odor hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the seventh to give the Rangers their third win in the four-game series. Bartolo Colon was supposed to start this one for Texas but didn’t because of back stiffness. This is how, all the jokes about his size and his age aside, you know that Colon is a legit athlete. For all normal 45 year-olds — and I speak from personal experience here — back stiffness is more or less the default status, not the rare anomaly which interrupts one’s normal routine.

Rays 2, Red Sox 0: Five Rays pitchers combined to shut out the Sox, Joey Wendle and C.J. Cron went deep and Tampa Bay avoided the sweep. In related news, over the weekend some Rays fans on Twitter decided to take me to task for not thinking the Rays would be good this year. Even the Tampa Bay Times got into the act yesterday, citing yours truly by name.

On the one hand I will totally cop to thinking the Rays would be far worse than they are. Like a lot of predictions, I blew that one. Kudos to the Rays for beating mine and everyone’s expectations for them.

On the other hand, the level of aggression I got from the Rays folks over the weekend was pretty hilarious given that, overachieving notwithstanding, we’re still talking about a team that has hovered around .500 all year and is around 25 games out of first place and 11 back in the Wild Card race. The Oakland A’s they are not. It also doesn’t take into account that most of my criticism was about the Rays front office making financial moves, not baseball moves, and doing it pretty cynically and pretty transparently. That those moves have happened to turn out far better for them than expected does not change the fact that they were financial moves that were and remain pretty hostile to casual fans, most of whom are looking for a connection to their team and some continuity to that end, and who do not give a flying frick about how many prospects are playing in Princeton or wherever and are not as jazzed by a three-year plan as they might be by, you know, having a front office who has as at least part of its mission to put an entertaining product on the field. There’s a certain swath of Rays fandom who does not understand that and, in fact, seems aggressively opposed to even trying to understand it.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not appreciating the glory of their accomplishment in 2018. Rather than merely receiving a respectful nod for doing far better than anyone expected and a mea culpa from those of us who got it wrong, maybe the Rays should hoist a “Most wins per dollars spent” banner to go with the Wild Card banner they put up a couple of years back to show the haters exactly what they’re dealing with.

Yankees 10, Blue Jays 2: Greg Bird hit a grand slam in the first inning and everything after that was cream cheese. J.A. Happ won for the fourth time in four starts as a Yankee, this one against his old mates. It wasn’t all good news, though: Didi Gregorius hurt his left heel in a collision at first base and left the game with a deep bruise that could land him on the disabled list. New York sweeps the three-game series.

Reds 11, Giants 4: Cincy put up a seven-run third inning ending this one before it even got going. Eugenio Suarez and Jose Peraza each hit two-run homers and Billy Hamilton tripled twice and drove in three. The Reds sweep the Giants, who fall eight games back in the west and three games under .500. They scored six runs in the whole series.

White Sox 7, Royals 6: Kansas City took a 6-0 lead into the fourth inning but the Chisox put up a tying six-spot that inning and added a decisive seventh run in the fifth. Omar Narvaez tied it up at six with a homer and then knocked in that decisive run I mentioned with an RBI single. Avasail Garcia hit a three-run bomb.

Twins 5, Tigers 4: Eddie RosarioMax Kepler and Jake Cave all went deep as the Twinkies won their fifth of six. Does anyone call them the Twinkies anymore? I haven’t heard that one for a long time. Then again, I don’t really watch a lot of Twinkies games and never watch sports network highlight shows so maybe I’m just missing it.

Brewers 2, Cardinals 1: Mike Moustakas‘ two-run double in the third held up thanks to Jhoulys Chacin‘s six shutout innings. The win puts the Brewers back ahead of St. Louis for the second Wild Card and ends Milwaukee’s three-game losing streak.

Astros 9, Athletics 4: Houston salvages one and in so doing regains their lead in the AL West. Justin Verlander got the W, earning the 200th win of his career. It wasn’t a pretty win — he didn’t make it out of the sixth and gave up four runs in the process, with three of those runs coming on Khris Davis homers — but as we so often note around here, wins are team-dependent and here his team picked him up. Most of that picking up came via the longball, with Yuli Gurriel, Evan Gattis, Martin Maldonado, Alex Bregman and Marwin Gonzalez going deep.

Dodgers 12, Mariners 1: Clayton Kershaw hasn’t gotten a lot of that team support this year but he got five runs before he even had to throw a pitch here and then cruised to his 150th career win. Maybe the Dodgers’ batters were pissed over losing in extra innings on a walkoff balk the night before. I know I would be. Difference with me is that, when I’m mad, I don’t usually do better work. Justin Turner hit a three-run homer and drove in five. Kershaw allowed one run on four hits in seven innings. L.A. did not gain any ground in the West though, thanks in part to that Rockies win over the Braves and thanks in part to . . .

Diamondbacks 4, Padres 3: . . . the Snakes beating the Friars. A.J. Pollock‘s ninth inning homer was the difference. Arizona had tied it at 3 thanks to Daniel Descalso‘s solo homer in the eighth. The Diamondbacks have won four of five. They retain a half-game lead over Colorado.

Mets 8, Phillies 2Amed Rosario had three hits and drove in three runs, Jeff McNeil had a two-run single and Jason Vargas was effective into the sixth inning as the Mets beat the Phillies in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in the Little League Classic. The Phillies have lost seven of 11 and drop a half game behind Atlanta in the East.

Indians 8, Orioles 0: Melky Cabrera hit a grand slam in Cleveland’s six-run fourth inning, Mike Clevinger shut the O’s out for six and three relievers finished it off as the Tribe takes two of three from the O’s.

In related news, I took my kids to the first game of this series on Friday night. They’re not really big baseball fans, but they like going to games. Partially because it’s fun and there’s junk food, but mostly because it provides them a new venue for the sort of savage and absurdist commentary for which Gen-Z kids are quickly becoming famous.

I’ve watched this from a front row seat for a couple of years now. Anyone who follows me on Twitter is familiar with how brutally my daughter Anna, 14, owns me via text messages (and some old timers around here may remember her greatest hits from WAY back in the day). Others who follow me know how deeply into absurdist and envelope-pushing meme culture my son, Carlo, 13, happens to be. Every day is a new, eye-opening adventure. I’m impressed by the level of savagery they’re capable of in their early teens and terrified at what they’re going to capable of once they reach adulthood.

I’m likewise suffering from no small amount of whiplash. I mean, I once thought my fellow Gen-Xers and I had perfected ironic emotional detachment and that whole “whatever, nothing matters anyway” stance. I also thought that a decade’s worth of Millennials restoring an earnestness and emotional honesty to the lexicon of our nation’s youth — the likes of which we haven’t seen for probably 60 or 70 years — had all but buried that jaded sentiment once and for all.

Nope. The Gen-Z kids are going to stomp on the Millennials’ throats and pour acid all over their hopes, dreams and pretensions of an earnest and hopeful world. Then they’ll laugh mockingly at the Gen-Xers as we’re exposed for the amateurs that we are, and will rhetorically kill us, like some warrior coming back to vanquish their sensei. The only saving grace is that whatever Boomers are still left as this happens will just die of shock and outrage. Gen-Z will not be attending their funerals either unless they need some pics of dead grandpa for a devastating meme or two (Carlo has already told my father that he’s going to meme him once he passes away; my father does not quite know what to make of that, mostly because he’s 74 and does not know what a meme is).

Anyway, I’ve blocked out most of what they had to say during the game as a means of psychological self-defense, but trust me when I say that it was three straight hours of running commentary at turns hilarious, frightening and truly disturbing in ways that are hard to pin down. I do, however, remember or have documentation of a few things that went down in between the hot dogs and bon mottes:

  • My son is well aware of my Chief Wahoo stance and, thankfully, agrees with it. Nevertheless, he kept threatening to say “my dad said you’re a racist” to everyone who was wearing Wahoo gear because he said it’d be fun to see what happened. Which, given that he’s basically an agent of chaos — here’s a video of him in action — was a fairly plausible threat. Thankfully he did not do it;
  • My daughter said to my son that Orioles’ outfielder Joey Rickard looked like “that kid Kyle, in your grade.” My son agreed. For the rest of the game, every time Rickard came up, they yelled “don’t mess up, Kyle!” Rickard went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and all the way home they would fill silences with “Dammit, Kyle” and shake their heads after which they’d laugh hysterically. They then said that, at school today, they were going to tell Kyle he sucked but not tell him why. I think it’s 50/50 that they do it;
  • Slider, the Indians’ mascot came up to our section. This is a screencap from my daughter’s Snapchat:

All of that being said, I don’t want you to get the impression that Anna and Carlo’s entire existence is savage owns and joking and ironic detachment. They are actually smart, sweet and sensitive kids who, when they’re not joking around, possess more empathy for their fellow humans than most adults who have seen and experienced far more than they have do. I am proud of my kids for that. Truly proud. Indeed I worry that the jaded exterior I’ve been describing is a defensive perimeter they and their generation have been forced to erect because the generations which came before them have thrown so much fear into their world and, perhaps, are even ruining it before my kids get a chance to live in it as adults. That’s a lot to put on anyone, but the fact that we’ve put that sort of weight on our children is a tragedy. Knowing that the’ll have to cope with what we have done to make their lives harder and, quite possibly, shorter, breaks my heart.

Those thoughts were swirling around my head as the game neared its end Friday evening. As they did, I looked over to Carlo and Anna sitting next to me. They were watching the game intently. And, even though it had started raining, quite contently. They seemed happy. The cynicism and the wiseguy routines had been left back in the middle innings somewhere. When Cody Allen struck out Kyle, er, I mean Joey Rickard, for the game’s final out, they both stood up and cheered a genuine and exuberant cheer. When they did, I figured it was a good opportunity for some rare heartfelt sincerity.

“So, Baseball. You like it, eh?” I said in my proudest dad voice, thinking that, just maybe, we had bonded over something near and dear to my heart. Anna looked at me and smiled. Then she said something I’ll never forget.

“Not really. But I guess I sort of have to respect it because if it wasn’t for baseball you’d be unemployed and I’d probably be homeless.”