Opening Day: Here’s what you may have forgotten

Opening Day
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At long last, Opening Day of the 2020 MLB regular season is upon us. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted things in mid-March, shutting down the league for three and a half months. Players returned to their teams on July 1 for three-plus weeks of a second training camp to ramp up ahead of the start of the regular season — today for four teams, tomorrow for everybody else.

Tonight’s Opening Day matchups feature the Nationals hosting the Yankees (Max Scherzer vs. Gerrit Cole) and the Dodgers hosting the Giants (Clayton Kershaw vs. Johnny Cueto).

With the pandemic and the subsequent negotiations between the MLB and MLBPA to put together details on a reformed season, it is easy to forget about all of the news that has happened since last October. Here’s a recap of everything you need to know.

  • The Astros and Red Sox were penalized for cheating. That happened this year! The Astros lost their first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and ’21, their GM and manager (Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch) were suspended one year and subsequently fired, and the team was fined $5 million. James Click is now the GM and Dusty Baker is the new manager. Meanwhile, the Red Sox fired Alex Cora for his role in two cheating schemes: with the Astros in 2017 and with the Red Sox in ’18. Ron Roenicke is now managing the Red Sox. Carlos Beltrán, who was also part of the Astros’ cheating scheme, was named as the Mets’ manager but was fired shortly thereafter, replaced by Luis Rojas.
  • Mookie Betts is a Dodger (and signed a big extension!), as is David Price (but he elected not to play the 2020 season). Gerrit Cole is a Yankee. Anthony Rendon is an Angel. Corey Kluber is a Ranger. Other noteworthy team changes: Starling Marte and Madison Bumgarner (Diamondbacks), Josh Donaldson (Twins), Zack Wheeler (Phillies), Hyun-Jin Ryu (Blue Jays), Dallas Keuchel and Yasmani Grandal (White Sox), Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos (Reds).
  • Joc Pederson is still a Dodger, despite the club agreeing to a trade with the Angels in February.
  • Other teams hiring new managers include the Phillies (Joe Girardi), Angels (Joe Maddon), Royals (Mike Matheny), Giants (Gabe Kapler), Cubs (David Ross), Pirates (Derek Shelton), and Padres (Jayce Tingler).
  • Along with Price, these players have elected not to play or opted out of the 2020 season: Buster Posey (Giants), Mike Leake (Diamondbacks), Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals), Joe Ross (Nationals), Welington Castillo (Nationals), Ian Desmond (Rockies), Héctor Noesí (Pirates), Collin McHugh (Red Sox), Nick Markakis (Braves), Félix Hernández (Braves), Jordan Hicks (Cardinals), Joe Smith (Astros), Tyson Ross (free agent), and Michael Kopech (White Sox).
  • The All-Star Game and the related festivities like the Home Run Derby have been cancelled. The Dodgers were scheduled to host, but they will instead host in 2022. The Braves will host in 2021.
  • There are a number of rule changes, some instituted before the pandemic and some instituted after. Let’s start with the pre-pandemic rules changes:
    • All pitchers must face at least three batters or pitch until the inning is over before coming out of the game. This is to cut down on mid-inning pitching changes, aimed at reducing the length of games.
    • Rosters were initially increased to 26 players. Due to the pandemic, they are now 30 players but will be pared down to 28 and then 26 as the season progresses. Teams were also limited to carrying at most 13 pitchers on their 26-man roster.
    • Two-way players now have a designation, allowing teams in some cases to carry more pitchers than they would otherwise be allowed. Consider the Angels with Shohei Ohtani or the Reds with Michael Lorenzen.
    • Pitchers and two-way players have a 15-day injured list as opposed to a 10-day injured list for position players. This is meant to act as a deterrent for teams getting cute with roster manipulation with their pitchers. In a similar vein, pitchers optioned to the minors must remain there for 15 days, up from 10 days.
    • Managers have 20 seconds to challenge calls on the field, down from 30 seconds.
  • The post-pandemic rules changes:
    • Universal DH in both leagues
    • Runner on second base to begin extra innings
    • No restrictions on position players pitching
    • Games that are suspended before they are official will be started at a later date rather than starting a fresh game
    • Players and managers are not allowed to argue with umpires as a way of maintaining social distancing. Players are also not allowed to instigate fights.
    • To deter pitchers from licking their fingers, pitchers are allowed to carry a wet rag in their back pocket for moisture. Pitchers will also carry their own rosin bag to and from the mound before and after each inning.
  • There is still labor strife. It was evident as MLB and the MLBPA attempted to renegotiate their March agreement. Now that there’s a season, it will be easy to forget things are tense between the two sides. The collective bargaining agreement expires on December 1, 2021 and there are a lot of unsolved issues, including free agency and service time manipulation.
  • Don’t forget about the juiced ball. There has been a lot of research deducing what, exactly, happened to the baseballs in recent years that led to a prodigious increase in home runs. It remains to be seen if the ball has been materially changed to bring offense back to pre-2017 levels.
  • Your reigning award winners:
    • AL MVP: Mike Trout (Angels)
    • NL MVP: Cody Bellinger (Dodgers)
    • AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander (Astros)
    • NL Cy Young: Jacob deGrom (Mets)
    • AL Rookie of the Year: Yordan Álvarez (Astros)
    • NL Rookie of the Year: Pete Alonso (Mets)
    • AL Manager of the Year: Rocco Baldelli (Twins)
    • NL Manager of the Year: Mike Shildt (Cardinals)
  • The Nationals are the reigning World Series champions, having defeated the Astros in seven games last October. It feels like that happened five years ago, but it was only nine months ago.

Braves sweep Mets, take 2-game lead in East with 3 remaining

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ATLANTA — Matt Olson knew the Atlanta Braves were too talented to stay in a season-long slump.

That’s why no one panicked when the New York Mets’ division lead swelled to double digits in May. Now the Braves are on the cusp of another NL East title.

“It’s a clubhouse full of guys who want to win,” Olson said. “That’s all it’s been since the moment I walked in. That’s No. 1 on the program.”

Dansby Swanson and Olson homered for the third straight game, Travis d'Arnaud hit a go-ahead two-run single in the third inning, and Braves beat New York 5-3 on Sunday night, completing a three-game sweep of their NL East rival and taking a two-game lead in the division with three games to play.

The defending World Series champion Braves have been chasing the Mets the entire season. In the final series of the season, any combination of one Atlanta win or one Mets loss would give the Braves their fifth straight division title.

New York plays its final three games of the season against worst-in-the-majors Washington. Atlanta closes out the regular season with a three-game set in Miami. Should the season end Wednesday in a tie, Atlanta would win the division after claiming the season series 10-9 with Sunday’s victory.

“We’ve felt this confidence since the beginning of the year,” d’Arnaud said. “It just didn’t go our way early in the year, but pulling on the same rope, having each others’ backs, not trying to do too much. We’re just trying to play the game of baseball and have fun with it.”

The Braves won five of the last six games in the series, outscoring the Mets 42-19 over that stretch. New York had a 10 1/2-game lead on June 1 but now is the lower in the standings than at any point this season.

It was a lost weekend for New York, which came to Atlanta hoping to clinch its first division title since 2015. Instead, aces Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer lost Friday and Saturday before Chris Bassitt lasted just 2 2/3 innings on Sunday.

“We still have three games left in the regular season, we’re still going to the postseason, that doesn’t change, but there’s a lot of learning points that we can take from this series moving forward,” Mets slugger Pete Alonso said. “I thought we played well, but the Braves played better. They played excellent baseball this entire weekend.”

Swanson took Bassitt deep to right-center in the first with his 25th homer, and Atlanta took charge with a three-run third. Bassitt (15-9) issued a bases-loaded walk to Olson before d’Arnaud delivered a single up the middle to score Ronald Acuna Jr. and Austin Riley for a 4-3 lead. That chased Bassitt, who was charged with four runs, three hits and three walks.

Olson connected for his 33rd homer to make it 5-3 leading off the sixth, his 410-foot shot landing in the seats in right-center. Olson, in his first year with Atlanta, surpassed 100 RBIs for the second straight season.

“Everyone knew we were underperforming when we were flirting around that .500 range,” Olson said. “It was one of those things where it was trusting the talent we have and the guys in the clubhouse. Everybody was solid, head down, do your work, it’ll turn around and you wind up winning.”

Charlie Morton stranded runners on first and second in the first, but he gave up Daniel Vogelbach‘s 18th homer that tied it at 1 in the second. The righty struck out Francisco Lindor with runners on first and second to end the threat.

Jeff McNeil went deep off Morton in the third and Vogelbach followed with an RBI single to put the Mets up 3-1. Morton entered the game having allowed 28 homers, sixth-most in the NL.

Morton scuffled throughout his start, giving up three runs and nine hits in 4 1/3 innings as the 38-year-old made his first start since signing a $20 million, one-year contract to remain with Atlanta next season.

Dylan Lee (5-1) relieved Morton and pitched 1 1/3 innings, leaving after a walk to Brandon Nimmo with two outs in the sixth. Collin McHugh entered and struck out Francisco Lindor.

Raisel Iglesias faced four batters in the seventh, A.J. Minter faced the minimum in the eighth and closer Kenley Jansen converted his third save of the series with a clean ninth.

Jansen leads the NL with 40 saves in 47 chances.

The Braves’ bullpen, which posted a 1.70 ERA last month, pitched 8 2/3 scoreless innings the last two nights.

BIG NUMBERS

Atlanta leads the NL with 241 homers. And the Braves have their first 100-victory season since 2003.

TWO, DARN HOT

McNeil went 3 for 5 and has multiple hits in five straight games. His average is .326, one point behind the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman for the NL batting title. In 23 career games at Truist Park, McNeil is hitting .395 with 12 runs, nine doubles, two homers, seven RBIs and four walks. … Jansen tied Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley for eighth place on the career list with 389. He’s also is the 10th closer to have four different seasons with at least 40 saves.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Mets All-Star RF Starling Marte (right middle finger fracture) has yet to begin swinging or throwing. … Braves 2B Ozzie Albies (broken right pinky finger) is still wearing a cast. … Braves RHP Spencer Strider still has not thrown as he gets treatment on a sore left oblique.

ATTENDANCE

The Braves drew 42,713 in their regular season finale, the club’s 42nd sellout of the season. Overall. that’s 3,129,931 for the season – and the most tickets sold since 2000. In 2019, the team’s last full season before the COVID-19 pandemic, Atlanta drew 2,655,100.

UP NEXT

Mets: RHP Carlos Carrasco (15-7, 3.95 ERA) will face Nationals RHP Cory Abbott (0-4, 5.11).

Braves: RHP Bryce Elder (2-3, 2.76 ERA) will face Marlins LHP Jesus Luzardo (3-7, 3.53).