Nationals

Nationals

The long-awaited first pitch of the 2020 MLB season will finally be thrown Thursday night, when Nationals probable starter Max Scherzer takes the mound to face the New York Yankees for the first of three games between two clubs that nearly faced off in the World Series last fall.

Although there will be plenty of attention directed toward the overall matchup of the reigning champion Nationals taking on a 103-win team in the Yankees, all eyes will be on the starting pitchers Opening Night. Scherzer is expected to go head-to-head with 2019 AL Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole, who inked a 10-year, $324 million deal with New York in free agency last winter.

Here’s everything you need to know about the matchup.

The resumes

Max Scherzer

3x Cy Young winner, 7x All-Star, 3x NL strikeout leader, 2x 20-game winner

One of the greatest pitchers of his generation, Scherzer enters his age-35 season ranked second among active players in career strikeouts (2,692), fifth in wins (170) and seventh in ERA (3.20, min. 1,000 IP). He’s one of five pitchers in MLB history with a 20-strikeout game and one of 35 with multiple no-hitters.

If Scherzer does start Game 1 for the Nationals, it will be the fifth time of his career that he gets the ball for Opening Day. He’s 1-2 with a 1.27 ERA and 37 strikeouts (eight walks) over 28 1/3 innings in those previous four starts.

Gerrit Cole

3x top-5 Cy Young finisher, 3x All-Star, 2019 AL strikeout leader and 20-game winner

Though he doesn’t have the career accolades of Scherzer, Cole has a compelling case for the best pitcher in the majors right now after two dominant seasons with the Houston Astros. Since the start of the 2018 season, Cole ranks first in strikeouts (602), second in wins (35) and fourth in ERA (2.68, min. 250 IP).

 

Cole has only started Opening Day once in his career: 2017, when he still pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He earned the loss after allowing five runs on seven hits and a walk over five innings with two strikeouts against the Boston Red Sox.

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Last matchup

Game 1 of the 2019 World Series

Scherzer and Cole have only faced each other once in their careers and it couldn’t have come on a bigger stage. In Game 1 of the 2019 Fall Classic, Scherzer earned the win after he allowed two runs on five hits and three walks with seven strikeouts over five innings and 112 pitches. Cole was dealt the loss behind a stat line of five runs on eight hits and a walk with six strikeouts across seven innings and 104 pitches.

It wasn’t an all-time performance from Scherzer, but the Nationals were able to solve Cole in ways other teams hadn’t. Over his first three starts of the playoffs before the World Series, Cole was 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA and 32 strikeouts. But Washington tagged him with solo home runs in the first (Ryan Zimmerman) and fourth (Juan Soto) innings before scoring three in the fifth.

Cole and Scherzer were supposed to face off again in Game 5 until the Nationals’ right-hander woke up with neck spasms that forced the team to scratch him from the start. Cole tossed a gem that night (one run over seven innings) while Scherzer had to wait until Game 7 before he could return to the mound.

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Storylines to watch

Cole’s unbeaten streak

The last time Cole received the loss in a regular season game was May 22, 2019, a span of 16 consecutive decisions (over 20 starts) in which he’s earned the win. Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, who retired in 1943, holds the all-time record with 24 straight wins.

Cole would need to go 8-0 to start the 2020 season in order to tie Hubbell for the record. If he gets the win Thursday, it would move into a five-way tie for the sixth-longest streak in MLB history. The only players with longer ones are Roger Clemens (20), Rube Marquard (20), Jake Arrieta (20), Roy Face (22) and Hubbell.

Scherzer’s race against time

Though Scherzer won’t have a chance to tie Tom Seaver’s MLB record of nine straight seasons with at least 200 strikeouts thanks to the schedule being reduced to 60 games, he still could put himself in a position to jump out to an early lead in the NL Cy Young race.

Scherzer may be turning 36 next week, but he still has a chance to pad that Hall of Fame resume after getting extended rest this offseason while the MLB season was on a hiatus. With pitchers expected to only get around 11-12 starts, every appearance will carry more weight in the Cy Young race. Putting together a strong performance against a deep Yankees lineup could go a long way in voters’ minds.

 

Strikeouts a plenty

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cole and Scherzer would be the first pair of starters with past 300-strikeout seasons to face each other on Opening Day. Cole eclipsed the mark last season with 326 while Scherzer finished with exactly 300 in 2018. Interestingly enough, neither pitcher won a Cy Young in the year they achieved the feat.

However, they will face lineups that aren’t as easy to strike out as many other clubs. The Nationals had the fourth-fewest punchouts in the majors last season while the Yankees ranked right in the middle of the pack with the 14th most.

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