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April 4, 2016

Opening Day Marks Another Year of Major League Baseball

On Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano threw a 92-mph sinker to Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals. With that pitch, baseball season began.

Opening day holds a special place in the hearts of baseball fans. It’s the smell of green grass and the feel of warm sunshine after a long, cold winter. It’s the immeasurable hope that this could be the year, as the sour taste of last fall is wiped away. This season is no different, as teams around the league seek October glory in the early days of April.

Here in Chicago, the tide may finally be turning for the city’s beloved and beleaguered Cubbies. After winning 97 games and reaching the National League Championship Series in 2015, the team acquired Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey, setting themselves up as the favorites early on.

While most Cubs fans hold their breath, the end of the Cubs’ infamous losing streak hasn’t seemed this close since Steve Bartman tried to catch a foul ball on that fateful October night 13 years ago. They will face stiff competition from the feisty Pirates and crafty Cardinals, but the streets of Wrigleyville are primed for the playoffs.

On the South Side of Chicago, a much more cautious optimism has infiltrated the Cell. The White Sox retooled again this winter, acquiring infielders Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie for seemingly cheap prices. Building around Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, and Jose Quintana, the team looks to capitalize on a division filled with uncertainty.

The Royals, fresh off a World Series victory, are hated by the underlying statistics, and many prognosticators imagine a fall back to earth for the champions. The Tigers are making one last push with an aging core, relying on bouncebacks from Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander if they hope to compete. The Indians might be the best of the bunch, carrying a deadly rotation and a lineup full of question marks. The Twins, sadly, are still waiting for next year.

Elsewhere, division races are tight. The AL west is shaping up to be a Texas showdown, as the state rival Rangers and Astros are set to duke it out all season. While Houston boasts Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, the Rangers will be getting their Japanese ace Yu Darvish back after he missed last season with Tommy John surgery.

In the National League, the Dodgers are suffering from a string of injuries so numerous that one would have a tough time differentiating between their roster and their disabled list. The Giants have a loaded rotation and are set to recapture their even-year magic that lead them to titles in 2010, 2012, and 2014. The Diamondbacks looked to surprise after signing Zack Greinke this offseason, but by losing their star centerfielder A.J. Pollock to a fractured elbow this spring, their odds do not look good.

The AL East could be won by any of the five teams, with all possessing notable flaws. Toronto will look to overpower the league with offense, but will be facing a young Red Sox team, a grizzled Yankee one, and squads from Baltimore and Tampa that won’t want to be written off.

In the NL East, the pennant-winning Mets look to ride their pitching staff to the postseason again, while the Nationals look to bounce back from one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory. While Washington might prove formidable, full seasons from Michael Conforto and Yoenis Cespedes tilt the odds in New York’s favor.

However, for now, every team has a chance to win. While the good, the bad, and the ugly will certainly show themselves soon, every team can for the moment consider itself a contender. Therein lies the wonder of opening day. For a few glorious hours, next year is today.

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