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Orioles-Red Sox series preview: And away we go

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After Thursday’s postponement, the Orioles begin the 2021 season today, in the same place they started it last year. Let’s do this thing, people.

Baltimore Orioles v. Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/MLB Photos via Getty Images

What’s this — an Orioles Opening Day in April instead of July? How quaint!

A year after a pandemic-scuttled, massively truncated season, the O’s are set to return to normalcy with a full, 162-game schedule, barring any COVID-19 interruptions like those that have already plagued the Nationals. Today — one day later than expected, thanks to Thursday’s “rainout” — the journey begins with the Orioles in Boston for the season’s first three games.

This marks the Birds’ second straight Opening Day at Fenway Park, where they began last year’s revamped 60-game schedule July 24. Before that, the Orioles had started their season in Boston only twice in their 66-year history, and not since 1966, Frank Robinson’s Orioles debut.

Last year’s opener was a dud from the get-go, with the Sox trouncing the O’s in a 13-2 blowout. The Orioles, though, won the final two of the series, eventually finishing one game ahead of hapless Boston in the AL East standings. Now, the two divisional non-contenders from 2020 are back at it.

The biggest change this time around, of course, is that there will actually be fans in the Fenway Park seats to cheer on the action. The ballpark will open at 12 percent capacity, allowing for roughly 4,700 attendees. These are words I never thought I’d say, but boy, it’s going to be great to see Red Sox fans.

As for the team, the Sox have higher hopes for this season than last, although they still (checks notes) do not have Mookie Betts. In fact, they no longer employ any of the Killer B’s who once made up their young, talented outfield, as the Sox traded Andrew Benintendi to Kansas City while Jackie Bradley Jr. left for Milwaukee in free agency. Their replacements are slugger Hunter Renfroe, signed as a free agent, and 26-year-old Franchy Cordero, part of the Benintendi trade return and definitely one of the top five Franchys in baseball. They’ll join holdover Alex Verdugo, who had a strong debut season in Boston last year after being acquired for Betts, though of course a far cry from the actual Betts.

The Sox have a bit more stability elsewhere on the diamond, led by one of the strongest left sides of the infield in baseball — at least offensively — in shortstop Xander Bogaerts and third baseman Rafael Devers. The two have been around long enough that it’s hard to believe they’re just 28 and 24 years old, respectively (both debuted at age 20). Bogaerts has posted four straight seasons with an OPS+ of 131 or better, while Devers enjoyed a solid 2020 season following a spectacular 2019 campaign.

Other familiar faces in the Sox lineup include catcher Christian Vazquez, entering his seventh season, and designated hitter J.D. Martinez, at times one of the game’s most fearsome sluggers but coming off an unimpressive 2020 performance. The Sox also bolstered their defensive versatility by signing Enrique Hernandez and Marwin Gonzalez, two jack-of-all-trades utility types who have each played every position but catcher in their careers. Hernandez even pitched once.

And that brings us to the biggest question mark for the Red Sox: their pitching staff. Last year, it was an unmitigated disaster; their 5.58 team ERA was the third-worst in baseball, and the club cycled through 30 pitchers in 60 games (even the Orioles didn’t use that many). Eduardo Rodriguez missed the entire season with myocarditis, likely brought on by his bout with COVID-19, and ace Chris Sale underwent Tommy John surgery. Combined with the departures of veterans David Price and Rick Porcello, the Sox were left with a threadbare rotation. Sixteen different pitchers made at least one start. The rotation is similarly unsettled this year, with Sale not expected back until at least midseason, but the Sox did re-sign veteran lefty Martin Perez, their leader in starts last year.

The Sox also have a lot of moving parts in their bullpen, but they got good news this week when closer Matt Barnes — who tested positive for COVID-19 — was cleared to return to the club after his result was ruled a “non-infectious positive.” He’ll be joined in the back of the bullpen by 24-year-old lefty Darwinzon Hernandez, who racked up 13 strikeouts in 8.1 innings last year, and veteran righty Adam Ottavino, acquired from New York in January in a rare Red Sox-Yankees trade.

Oh, and the Sox rehired Alex Cora as manager. You know, Alex Cora, the guy they fired just 14 months ago, who was suspended by MLB for a year for his role in the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal in 2017. Yeah, he’s back now, as if nothing ever happened. Bygones, and all that.

Game 1: Friday, 2:10 PM

LHP John Means vs. RHP Nathan Eovaldi

The undisputed ace of the Orioles’ staff, Means will be making his first Opening Day start, and it comes at the ballpark where he made his major league debut in 2018 and against the team he’s faced more than any other (six career starts vs. the Red Sox). Means was meant to start last year’s opener, too, before developing arm fatigue at the end of spring training. This time, it’s all systems go. Martinez and Bogaerts, who have combined for five career homers against Means, might give the lefty trouble, but historically he’s neutralized Devers (3-for-18) and Vazquez (2-for-12).

On the Red Sox side, this opener was supposed to mark Eduardo Rodriguez’s long-awaited return to the mound after his 2020 health scare, but he fell victim to the same fate Means did a year ago, reporting a dead arm that landed him on the injured list. Instead, Eovaldi will start the opener against the Orioles for the second straight year. The flamethrowing right-hander stymied the Birds in that opening start, holding them to one run in six innings, and then pitched two more gems later in the season, going 3-0 with a 0.95 ERA against the Orioles all told. Can the O’s figure out Eovaldi this time around?

Game 2: Saturday, 1:10 PM

RHP Matt Harvey vs. RHP Tanner Houck

If you’d asked me two months ago which pitcher would start the Orioles’ second game of 2021, I would’ve named about 500 guys, maybe 1,000, before I even considered Matt Harvey. Heck, you could’ve spotted me the name “Harvey” and he still wouldn’t have been my first guess; it’d be more plausible that the O’s converted Hunter Harvey back into a starter.

But here we are with the 32-year-old veteran, who has been a below league-average pitcher — sometimes significantly below — every year since 2016, pitching well enough at spring training to earn the gig. The O’s don’t need him to resemble his former All-Star stature; they’re just hoping he can eat some innings and not embarrass himself. Harvey has never pitched at Fenway Park and has faced the Red Sox just once in his career (throwing six shutout innings back in 2015 for the Mets), so this will be a new experience for him.

The Red Sox will counter with the rookie Houck, a former first round pick who had a sensational arrival in the majors in 2020, allowing just one earned run in 17 innings over three starts.

Game 3: Sunday, 1:10 PM

LHP Bruce Zimmermann vs. RHP Garrett Richards

Speaking of unlikely opening-series starters, how about Zimmermann? The unheralded prospect, with just two major league appearances under his belt, earned his way into the rotation with a brilliant performance this spring — nine scoreless innings over his first three exhibition appearances — before getting torched for seven runs in his final start. The Orioles hope the former is more the norm than the latter for the 26-year-old Maryland native. One of his two big league outings last year came against the Red Sox, whom Zimmermann held to one run in four innings of relief Sept. 23.

The oft-injured Richards, a 32-year-old vet, will be making his Red Sox debut after signing as a free agent in February. He stayed healthy for the entire shortened season last year for the Padres, no small feat for a hurler who’d made just 31 appearances in the previous four years combined. He hasn’t pitched against the Orioles since 2015, and no current Orioles hitter has ever faced him.

Poll

How many games will the Orioles win in this series?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    3 (Orioles will sweep!)
    (18 votes)
  • 38%
    2
    (44 votes)
  • 39%
    1
    (45 votes)
  • 6%
    0 (Orioles will get swept)
    (7 votes)
114 votes total Vote Now