Rejoice! Baseball is finally on the horizon. Any Opening Day is special, but I’m not sure there was a better way possible for the Yankees to start the delayed and abbreviated 2020 season than a series in Washington D.C. against the defending champion Nationals. The Nats fought through thick and thin to take an improbable World Series crown last season, going 5-0 in potential elimination games in the playoffs and outlasting the Houston Astros in a memorable Game 7.
The Nationals have made some changes going into 2020, though. They re-signed postseason heroes Howie Kendrick and Stephen Strasburg and added Starlin Castro, Will Harris, Eric Thames and Asdrubal Cabrera to the mix, but lost All-Star Anthony Rendon, as well as Brian Dozier and Matt Adams. They also have a few key players sitting out in light of the coronavirus, including Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross and Wellington Castillo. Still, their starting rotation and core young group of hitters is mostly intact.
Thursday: Gerrit Cole vs. Max Scherzer
This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The Yankees drafted Gerrit Cole in 2008, but he did not sign. Then, the team sat on its hands while he was traded from Pittsburgh to Houston after 2017. Now, 12 years after the pursuit of Cole began, he will make his Yankees debut on Thursday night. Exhibition stats don’t matter a ton in the grand scheme of things, but Cole had a good spring and has been excellent in summer camp, only heightening the anticipation around his debut. It’s finally time for the most-hyped Yankees debut since Alex Rodriguez or Roger Clemens.
Before Cole takes the mound, Scherzer will throw the first pitches of the 2020 season, and he will do it as the ace of a reigning World Series champion. The final feather in Scherzer’s cap, he pitched through pain to a 2.40 ERA in six postseason appearances. The Nats won every game he pitched in the playoffs, including Game 7 of the World Series. Although his 36th birthday is just five days away, Scherzer is still at the top of his game and is a surefire Hall of Famer. He’s 4-3 in seven regular season starts vs. the Yankees, but also has two postseason wins over New York to his credit.
Saturday: James Paxton vs. Stephen Strasburg
Paxton will start the second game for the Yankees, and he’s entering a crucial year at age 31. He went 15-6 with a 3.82 ERA and 1.28 WHIP for the Yankees, which looks good, but there were some hiccups along the way, particularly in the beginnings of games. Still, Paxton has some of the best stuff on the team. Over his best 12-start stretch last year, he went 11-1 with a 3.32 ERA and a .199 batting average against. With 12 starts ahead of him before hitting free agency for the first time, Paxton will need to get over his early-inning struggles if he wants the big payday he is so close to obtaining.
Paxton will be opposed by Stephen Strasburg, who would be a No. 1 starter on almost any other team. Strasburg, already 32 years old (!), is coming off an excellent year where he led the league in innings with 209 and tacked on 251 strikeouts. He followed that up with an incendiary postseason, and earned a seven-year, $245 million contract extension this offseason. Strasburg has somehow never faced the Yankees before, which should make Saturday night an intriguing pitching showdown.
Sunday: TBD vs. Patrick Corbin
With Masahiro Tanaka still working back from injury, the Yankees will turn to a bullpen game in Game 3 of the series. It seems bizarre at first with J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery both available, but throwing a bullpen game on Sunday is essentially a placeholder for what would have been Tanaka’s spot. It will keep the other starters on normal rest, and potentially leave Friday, July 31 as Tanaka’s possible debut. As for Sunday’s game, Aaron Boone mentioned Michael King, Jonathan Loaisiga and Chad Green as possibilities to “open” the game, and it’s a strong bet you’ll see at least two of those arms in the game.
Technically, the Nationals haven’t listed a Sunday starter either, but you could bet the house on it being Corbin. Corbin threw an exhibition game on Tuesday, which would have him lined up to pitch Sunday. He’s clearly the Nats’ undisputed third starter after pitching to a 3.25 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 10.6 K/9 and 141 ERA+ across 202 innings in the first year of a six-year, $140 million contract. He only went 2-3 with a 5.79 ERA in eight postseason appearances (three starts), but earned his first World Series ring nonetheless. Corbin has only faced the Yankees once before, back in his breakout 2013 season, throwing seven one-run innings for the Diamondbacks.