The Pittsburgh Pirates won 98 games last year – their most since 1991 – but were eliminated in the National League wild card game for the second consecutive season. “Every year, we’re a little more hungry,” reliever Tony Watson told reporters as Pittsburgh prepares to kick off the 2016 season against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday. “Ninety-eight wins is nothing to hang our heads about, but we definitely want to win a division, raise a World Series flag in Pittsburgh.”
Part of the problem for the Pirates is that they are members of a Central Division that also boasts perennial playoff contender St. Louis and the upstart Chicago Cubs, who eliminated Pittsburgh in the wild card game last season. The Cardinals face challenges with shortstop Jhonny Peralta (thumb) likely out until mid-July while right-hander Lance Lynn (12-11, 3.03 ERA in 2015) could miss the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The Pirates, meanwhile, boast 2013 NL Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen, who could be sitting on a monster year after “slumping” to fifth in MVP voting last season. St. Louis’ Adam Wainwright makes his fourth consecutive opening day start (fifth overall) and opposes Francisco Liriano, who takes the hill for his third straight opener (fourth overall).
TV: 1:05 p.m. ET, ESPN, FSN Midwest (St. Louis), ROOT (Pittsburgh)
LINE HISTORY: The Pirates opened as very slight +102 home
pups, but since then all the action has been on the Buccos, moving the
line to -120. The total opened at 6.0 runs.
Cardinals – C Y. Molina (questionable Sunday, thumb), SS R. Tejada (out Sunday, quadricep), RP J. Walden (out Sunday, shoulder), RP M. Harris (out Sunday, elbow), SS J. Peralta (out Sunday, thumb).
Pirates – 1B M. Morse (questionable Sunday, hamstring), C E. Diaz (out Sunday, elbow), 3B J. Kang (out Sunday, knee).
WEATHER REPORT: The first game of the 2016 Major League season is going to be a chilly one with temperatures in the high 30’s for gametime. There will also be a strong 11 mile per hour hitters wind gusting out to right center field.
WHAT SHARPS SAY: “They had the second most wins (98) in the league last season and they had the best overall offense in NL Central, leading the division in team batting average, on-base percentage, hits and runs scored. Andrew McCutchen remains one of the best all-around players in the league. However, the Pirates were fortunate to go 36-17 in one-run games last year and will likely regress this season in close games. Meanwhile the Cardinals have five straight playoff appearances, including three straight division titles. Last season they became the first team to win 100 regular season games in the past four years. However, the team is aging and the depth of the starting pitching rotation is a concern. Wainwright missed five months last season, plus Jaime Garcia and Carlos Martinez had recent injuries.” – Covers Expert Steve Merril.
PITCHING MATCHUP: Cardinals RH Adam Wainwright (2015: 2-1, 1.61 ERA) vs. Pirates LH Francisco Liriano (2015: 12-7, 3.38)
Wainwright makes his first start since going down last April with an Achilles’ injury and after pitching six games in relief – three postseason – in September and October. The 34-year-old Georgia native yielded eight runs and 19 hits while walking six and striking out 11 in 15 innings over four starts during spring training. “My arm feels great, and that, I think, is the most important thing going forward and into the season,” Wainwright told reporters. “There are a couple of very minor things that make a big deal of difference that I’m going to do between now and the next start.”
Liriano, who becomes the first Pittsburgh pitcher to make three consecutive opening day starts since Doug Drabek in 1990-92, hopes to reach 200 innings for the first time as his career high is 191 2/3 while with Minnesota in 2010. “I think it means that I’m being more consistent than I used to be before,” the 32-year-old Dominican Republic native told reporters about the opening day nod. “I wish I can continue to do that and be more consistent, hopefully go deep into games and throw more innings this year.” Liriano permitted nine runs and 19 hits while walking two and striking out 16 in 13 1/3 innings over four starts during spring training.
* Cardinals are 5-1 in Wainwright’s last six road starts.
* Pirates are 11-0 in Liriano’s last 11 home starts.
* Over is 5-1 in the last six meetings in Pittsburgh.
* Over is 12-3-1 in Liriano’s last 16 starts overall.
Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays (-105, 7.0)
The Toronto Blue Jays came within two wins of reaching the World Series last fall and begin their quest to advance one more round Sunday with the first contest of a four-game road series against the revamped Tampa Bay Rays. The Blue Jays, who scored 127 more runs than anyone and led the majors in homers in 2015, will be tested in the season opener against talented right-hander Chris Archer.
Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and American League MVP Josh Donaldson combined for 120 home runs last season and the Blue Jays will get a full season of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki in the lineup. The biggest loss for Toronto is starting pitcher David Price and a lot will depend on new ace Marcus Stroman, who gets the ball in the opener. The Rays finished below .500 the last two seasons after making the playoffs in four of the previous six campaigns, and added some juice to an offense that finished second-to-last in the American League in runs scored in 2015. Newcomers – including first baseman Logan Morrison, outfielder-designated hitter Corey Dickerson, shortstop Brad Miller and catcher Hank Conger – are all expected in Tampa Bay’s lineup Sunday.
TV: 4:05 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Sportsnet (Toronto), FSN Sun (Tampa Bay)
LINE HISTORY: The Rays opened as slight +104 home pups, but have
since jumped the fence to slight -105 home faves. The total opened at
Blue Jays – 1B E. Encarnacion (probable Sunday, oblique), RP B. Schultz (out Sunday, hip), RP A. Loup (out Sunday, elbow), 2B D. Travis (out Sunday, shoulder).
Rays – SP A Cobb (out Sunday, elbow), RP B. Boxberger (out Sunday, abdominal).
WEATHER REPORT: Indoors.
WHAT SHARPS SAY: “The Blue Jays finished the 2015 regular season with an incredible 70-39 record after starting just 23-30. Their record could have been even better as they went just 15-28 in one run games. In fact, their X_WL (expected won-loss record using runs scored differential) was 102-60 last year which was six games better than any other team in baseball. The Rays on the other hand, ranked second to last in runs scored in the American League and only 25th overall in all of baseball last season. However, the starting pitching rotation has potential with Chris Archer and should be healthier overall this year.” – Covers Expert Steve Merril.
PITCHING MATCHUP: Blue Jays RH Marcus Stroman (2015: 4-0, 1.67 ERA) vs. Rays RH Chris Archer (12-13, 3.23)
Stroman missed most of last season after suffering a torn ACL in the spring and was outstanding when he returned, including three decent postseason starts. The 24-year-old Duke product went 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA in 26 games his rookie season in 2014, including 1-1 against the Rays. Stroman won his only start at Tampa Bay in September 2014, allowing two runs and seven hits over six innings, and gave up three runs in 13 2/3 frames this spring.
Archer became an All Star for the first time in 2015, breaking the club record for a single season with 252 strikeouts in 212 innings. The 27-year-old North Carolina native was only 3-8 at home last season, but had a better ERA (3.11) and batting average against (.213) at Tropicana Field than he did on the road where he went 9-5. Archer is 5-3 with a 3.26 ERA in his career against the Blue Jays and has held Bautista and Encarnacion to 10-for-69 with four homers.
* Blue Jays are 7-1 in Stroman’s last eight starts.
* Rays closed last season 6-1 in their last seven home games.
* Over is 4-0 in Stroman’s last four starts overall.
* Over is 6-1-1 in Archer’s last eight starts overall.
New York Mets at Kansas City Royals (+110, 7.0)
The Kansas City Royals begin their defense of the World Series crown against the team they sent home last fall when they host the New York Mets in an interleague opener Sunday night. The two-time defending American League champs needed five games to top the Mets and claim their second all-time World Series title and they’ve largely kept their core intact, re-signing star left fielder Alex Gordon and filling small holes elsewhere to form a roster that they feel could even improve upon 2015.
“We’ve got the same pieces. We’ve got a little better,” third baseman Mike Moustakas told reporters. “And we’ve got the same mindset, so there is no telling what we can accomplish. We’ve just got to go out there and do it.” There has been talk in recent days of Kansas City retaliating for a purpose pitch by Mets flamethrower Noah Syndergaard to open Game 3 of the World Series, adding an element of intrigue to this two-game, three-day series, but several Royals shot down such talk. New York, which opened 2015 at 13-3, will be looking to get off to another solid start behind right-hander Matt Harvey, who struggled during the spring and also recently dealt with a blood clot in his bladder. The Mets went winless in their final 13 Grapefruit League games before splitting a pair with the Chicago Cubs in Las Vegas.
TV: 8:37 p.m. ET, ESPN
LINE HISTORY: The defending champion Royals opened as +106 home dogs and bettors like the Mets just enough to move the Royals to +110. The total opened at 7.0 runs.
Mets – SS A. Cabrera (probable Sunday, knee), RP H. Robles (out Sunday, suspension), RP J. Edgin (out Sunday, elbow).
Royals – RF J. Dyson (out Sunday, abdominal), RP T. Collins (out for season, Tommy John).
WEATHER REPORT: It should be a beautiful night for baseball in Kansas City. Clear skies and temperatures in the mid 60’s for the game. There will also be a 10-14 mile per hour hitters wind blowing out to center field.
WHAT SHARPS SAY: “The defending National League champions have the best 1-2-3 punch of any starting rotation in the league with Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard. They also have a reliable closer in Jeurys Familia who had a 1.85 ERA last season while converting 43 of 48 save opportunities. Meanwhile the Royals lost Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto in the offseason, but overall they still have the same core that won the World Series last year. Kansas City was second to last in the AL in home runs, but they win with pitching as evident by the fact they allowed the second fewest home runs in the league last season.” – Covers Expert Steve Merril.
PITCHING MATCHUP: Mets RH Matt Harvey (2015: 13-8, 2.71 ERA) vs. Royals RH Edinson Volquez (2015: 13-9, 3.55)
Harvey had a solid rebound after missing all of 2014 to recover from Tommy John surgery, ranking in the top 10 in the National League in ERA and WHIP (1.019) and winning the league’s Comeback Player of the Year Award. He rebounded from the bladder issue to toss two innings Wednesday against Washington but gave up a three-run homer to lift his spring training ERA to 7.50, some of which was the result of nine walks in 12 innings. The 27-year-old gave up five runs in 14 innings in two World Series starts – both no-decisions – against the Royals, but has never faced them in the regular season.
After several down years, Volquez has put up 13 wins and a sub-4.00 ERA in two straight seasons and he was on the mound opposite Harvey in the Game 5 clincher on Nov. 1. The 32-year-old, who is 2-5 with a 5.70 ERA in nine career starts against the Mets, tossed a career-high 200 1/3 innings in 2015 before adding another 28 2/3 in the playoffs. New York right fielder Curtis Granderson, third baseman David Wright and second baseman Neil Walker are a combined 5-for-39 with seven strikeouts against Volquez.
* Over is 6-0 in the last six meetings.
* Mets are 1-6 in the last seven meetings.
* Over was 6-0 in Matt Harvey’s last six road starts last season/
* Royals are 7-0 in Volquez’s last seven interleague starts.