In eight days, the Nationals will play host to the New York Yankees in a three-game series to help kick off the 2020 MLB season. The reigning World Series champions will take on the team with the most titles in the history of the sport, presenting plenty of intrigue ahead of the sport’s first regulation games in almost nine months.
Even though both clubs boast their fair share of sluggers, all eyes will be on the pitching matchups—particularly the highly anticipated Opening Night bout between three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and $324 million man Gerrit Cole.
Both Nationals manager Davey Martinez and Yankees skipper Aaron Boone confirmed Monday that their respective aces would be getting the ball July 23. Here’s how each pitcher ranks among pitchers with at least 300 innings over the last two years:
Strikeouts – Cole (1st/602), Scherzer (3rd/543)
Innings – Cole (1st/412.2), Scherzer (7th/393)
ERA – Cole (3rd/2.68), Scherzer (4th/2.70)
WHIP – Cole and Scherzer (T-3, 0.962)
fWAR – Scherzer (2nd/14.0), Cole (3rd/13.4)
Scherzer missed time in 2019 with a back injury but was healthy enough by October to help lead the Nationals to their first World Series title in franchise history. Cole, who spent the last two seasons with the Houston Astros before signing with New York last winter, finished second in AL Cy Young award voting before helping his club all the way to Game 7 against Washington.
Cole vs. Scherzer should have every MLB fan tuning in on Opening Night, but that won’t be the only marquee pitching matchup in D.C. that weekend. Boone told reporters Wednesday that James Paxton would be starting opposite Stephen Strasburg for the second game of the series, though he has yet to announce who gets the ball for the Sunday contest against Patrick Corbin.
Paxton struggled to stay healthy last season but still turned in a solid season with a 3.82 ERA and 186 strikeouts over 29 starts and 150 2/3 innings. He will face the tall task of toping the performance of Strasburg, who led the NL with 18 wins last season and won World Series MVP honors. Strasburg joined Cole as a free agent last winter before re-signing with Washington on a seven-year, $245 million deal.
The Nationals will then turn to Corbin, who was courted by the Yankees while he was a free agent in 2018, for the series finale. Corbin was named the 2019 Warren Spahn Award winner as the best left-handed pitcher in baseball. In his first season with Washington, he went 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts as he eclipsed the 200-inning threshold for the second straight year.
New York is hoping that Masahiro Tanaka will be ready to pitch that Sunday after taking a line drive off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to his head July 4. Though Tanaka underwent a CT scan and said he hasn’t experienced any concussion-like symptoms, the Yankees are proceeding cautiously with their two-time All-Star.
"I want to be optimistic and say yes," Tanaka told reporters through a translator Tuesday. "But obviously the injury is at the head, so I think it's something that I need to be cautious about and kind of take it careful, more so than other injuries."
If Tanaka is unable to go, the Yankees will likely turn to J.A. Happ for the series finale. Happ posted a disappointing 4.91 ERA over 31 appearances (30 starts) for New York last season after signing a two-year, $34 million deal the previous offseason. At 37 years old, he’s hoping to pitch out of the rotation for the entirety of the 2020 season in order to trigger a vesting option for 2021.
The three-game set will be the only series between Washington and New York this season, meaning fans won’t have another chance to see Scherzer-Cole or even Strasburg-Paxton in 2020 unless both teams make it to the World Series.
While that’s certainly not out of the question, the opening series’ pitching matchups will be a rare sight for fans to take advantage of when MLB kicks off its season.
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