NEW YORK YANKEES SLUGGER Giancarlo Stanton is congratulated after scoring on a single by Didi Gregorius during the fifth inning of the team’s baseball spring training game against the Atlanta Braves in Tampa, Florida, recently. Stanton was traded to New York from the Miami Marlins, giving the Yankees a powerful lineup.

NEW YORK YANKEES SLUGGER Giancarlo Stanton is congratulated after scoring on a single by Didi Gregorius during the fifth inning of the team’s baseball spring training game against the Atlanta Braves in Tampa, Florida, recently. Stanton was traded to New York from the Miami Marlins, giving the Yankees a powerful lineup.

Just the thought of Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in the same lineup sent fans into a frenzy. Come opening day, all of baseball will see which teams really have the muscle.

A season of haves and have nots begins Thursday with Derek Jeter’s pared-down Marlins playing the pumped-up Cubs. Later that day, the New York Yankees unleash their most potent pair of sluggers since Mantle & Maris.

MVP Jose Altuve and the World Series champion Houston Astros added ace Gerrit Cole to a rotation with Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander. The Dodgers and Indians are still poised after coming within one win of that elusive crown. The Nationals hired a new manager to help free agent-to-be Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg reach the top. And the Red Sox got the bopper they needed.

Where does that leave the Reds, Pirates, Tigers, Rays and A’s? Well, better luck next year. Or the year after that.

Major League Baseball is in a hurry these days, with record home runs and strikeouts the new norm. But please, get that last out in under three hours.

A season that will include games in Mexico and Puerto Rico is set to start. And, if all goes as planned, the final game will come in October.

Here’s an early best-of-seven:

WELCOME — Slugger J.D. Martinez moves to Boston, which hit the fewest homers in the American League. Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria go to the retooling Giants, Jake Arrieta joins the rebuilding Phillies, Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain become part of the Brewers’ outfield, Marcell Ozuna provides pop in St. Louis and Yu Darvish is now pitching for the Cubs. Also, six new managers: Alex Cora (Red Sox), Aaron Boone (Yankees), Dave Martinez (Nationals), Mickey Callaway (Mets) and Gabe Kapler (Phillies) try for the first time, and Ron Gardenhire (Tigers) returns after a four-year absence.

WORTH WATCHING — Babe Ruth or bust? We’ll see whether newcomer Shohei Ohtani becomes the most successful two-way player in the bigs since the Bambino. The 23- year-old Japanese star struggled at the plate and on the mound this spring, but it’s early. Tampa Ray reliever Jonny Venters has been out of the majors since 2012 while having three Tommy John surgeries. Alex Rodriguez, meanwhile, keeps getting more popular in retirement as he moves into the ESPN booth for Sunday night telecasts.

HIYA — In a game of numbers, make way for some new letters to go along with ERA, OPS and WAR: MVs. Mound visits will be posted on scoreboards, tracking how many times catchers, infielders, managers and coaches go talk with a pitcher. It’s part of MLB’s new pace-of-play rules, designed to cut down the incessant back-and-forth between batteries. Teams are allowed six trips without making a change. After that, every visit requires a new pitcher. For sure, this will take a few weeks to sort out. And no shenanigans — what if a shortstop thinks a reliever is out of gas, and trots to the mound on his own to force a switch?

OUCH! — Giants ace Madison Bumgarner is among several banged-up stars who will miss opening day. Dodgers catalyst Justin Turner, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, Orioles closer Zach Britton, Milwaukee starter Jimmy Nelson and Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki are out, Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy is doubtful. Mariners ace Felix Hernandez is recovering from being hit by a line drive in spring training, which is how Bumgarner broke a bone in his pitching hand. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel is healing from hand surgery, then will serve a five-game suspension for making an offensive gesture toward Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish during the World Series. Twins shortstop Jorge Polanco begins an 80-game drug ban, and will be ineligible if Minnesota makes the playoffs.

YUMMY — The plate will be tasty — at concession stands. In Texas, the Dilly Dog is a dill pickle, hollowed out and stuffed with a hot dog, served up battered and fried. PNC Park presents Greens and Grains that includes kale, quinoa, sunflower seeds and other healthy items. Fenway Park provides dessert, a creme brulee French toast topped with Vermont maple syrup. Want a bolder option? Try the Rocky Mountain Po’Boy at Coors Field. That’s Rocky Mountain oysters, topped with guacamole, pico de gallo and more, on a roll (um, Rocky Mountain oysters aren’t really seafood. In Colorado, that’s what they call cattle testicles).

FAN-TASTIC — All 30 teams will have expanded netting to protect fans, reaching at least to the far end of the dugouts. … At Camden Yards, the Orioles will offer free tickets in the upper deck to kids 9 and under for the first month of the season. … At the Coliseum, the A’s are opening a garden beyond the outfield seats, growing produce and flowers in redwood planters. … At Dodger Stadium, there will be bar stools behind the plate, plus a painted blue seat in right field to mark where Kirk Gibson’s home run landed to win the 1988 World Series opener.

THE EX FACTOR — From Triple-A Pawtucket down to rookie Pioneer League Idaho Falls, extra innings will have a different look in the minors. Every half-inning will start with a runner on second base. They say it’ll shorten games and help preserve the arms of pitching prospects. They do this in the World Baseball Classic, international baseball and — heck — even Central Park softball. Purists, note: Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated this idea isn’t being considered for any major league games that count. For real, right?

Key dates

Baseball begins again with every team opening on the same day for the first time since 1968. Here are a handful of dates to mark on the calendar:

THURSDAY, MARCH 29

San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers: The earliest domestic start in baseball history features one of the game’s best rivalries. Clayton Kershaw makes his record eighth opening day start for the NL champion Dodgers after going 18-4 with a 2.31 ERA in 27 starts last year. He takes on a much more challenging lineup after the Giants acquired Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen in a pair of offseason trades. It’s the first opener between the clubs since 2013.

MONDAY, APRIL 2

Baltimore Orioles at Houston Astros: Reigning AL MVP Jose Altuve and the Astros celebrate the franchise’s first championship before their home opener against Adam Jones and the Orioles. The Astros outlasted the Dodgers in a seven-game World Series last fall, and they might be even better this year after acquiring right-hander Gerrit Cole in a January trade with Pittsburgh. The Orioles are hoping to bounce back after finishing last in the rugged AL East last season.

TUESDAY, MAY 8

Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees: It’s on — again. Mookie Betts and the Red Sox make their first trip of the season to New York to take on Aaron Judge and the Yankees. Boston won the AL East in 2017, and then bolstered its lineup by signing slugger J.D. Martinez to a $110 million, fiveyear contract in February. New York, which lost to Houston in last year’s AL Championship Series, traded for Giancarlo Stanton in December, creating the type of star-studded batting order usually only found in video games. One of baseball’s biggest rivalries is must-see TV again in 2018.

FRIDAY, JUNE 15

Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals: The NL Central used to belong to the Cardinals, but it has been the Cubs’ show lately. Chicago won the division in each of the past two seasons and remains the favorite after signing right-hander Yu Darvish to a $126 million, six-year contract in February. St. Louis traded for outfielder Marcell Ozuna in December and is hoping to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015. A good place to start might be the season series against Chicago after the Cardinals lost 14 of 19 games against the Cubs last year.

TUESDAY, JULY 17

All-Star Game: The Midsummer Classic returns to Washington for the first time since Willie McCovey homered twice in the National League’s 9-3 victory at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in 1969. That was part of a long run of dominance for the NL in one of baseball’s showcase events, but times have changed. The American League won 2-1 in 10 innings in Miami last year for its fifth consecutive victory.

TUESDAY, JULY 31

Trade deadline: The last chance for teams to make deals without having to first pass players through waivers.

SUNDAY, SEPT. 30

Texas Rangers at Seattle Mariners: Ichiro Suzuki begins his 18th season in the majors in the same place where he started after he came to the United States from Japan, returning to Seattle for a $750,000, one-year contract. If he decides this is it — Suzuki turns 45 in October, but doesn’t seem to be entertaining the idea of retiring anytime soon — he could play his final game at Safeco Field in the season finale.


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