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6 things to know for this weird baseball season

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.

In a normal year, Major League Baseball would be entering the dog days of the season right about now. But nothing about this year is normal. So instead of half-paying-attention to a bunch of mostly meaningless mid-summer games Thursday night, baseball fans will be tuning in for a pair of season openers. And we do mean tuning in, because no spectators are allowed in stadiums this year.

The 2020 regular season — drastically shortened by both the pandemic and the ensuing labour battle — starts with Yankees-Nationals at 7 p.m. ET and Giants-Dodgers at 10 p.m. ET. The rest of the teams open Friday — including the Toronto Blue Jays, who visit the Tampa Bay Rays at 6:40 p.m. ET.

Since the season is starting about four months later than usual, you might be a little foggy on the big storylines. So here are a few things to know before Dr. Anthony Fauci throws out the first pitch in Washington:

The schedule is a lot more compact

This is true in terms of both time and space. Rather than 162 games, teams are playing just 60. Forty of these are against the other four teams in their division. The other 20 are against the teams in the geographically corresponding division in the opposite league. So if you’re in the American League East, you play against the National League East.

The regular season ends on Sept. 27 and will be followed by an expanded post-season tournament. Instead of 10 teams making it, 16 get in — the top two teams in each division, plus two wild cards in each league. The first round is best-of-three. It’s followed by the usual best-of-five Division Series and the best-of-seven League Championship Series and World Series. In the first round, the higher seed hosts every game.

3 big rule changes go into effect

The first two ideas have been kicked around for years and finally got pushed through as part of the hastily reworked labour deal: The designated hitter will be used in National League games for the first time ever, and in extra innings each team will start with a runner on second base. The latter rule will not be used in the post-season.

The other change was approved before the pandemic hit. In an effort to reduce the number of pitching changes (a big gripe among fans in recent years), each reliever must face a minimum of three batters, unless the inning ends before that happens.

The Blue Jays have a lot going on

As rebuilding years go, 2019 was pretty successful for Toronto. The trick in this situation is to distract your fans from all the losing with a few exciting moments and some reasons to be optimistic about the future. The Blue Jays supplied both.

In April, they made the most hyped minor-league callup baseball has seen in years when they promoted Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He didn’t exactly set the league on fire, but he hit very well for a 20-year-old and remains on track to be a star. Later in the season, the Jays brought up another exciting prospect in Bo Bichette. While not as powerful as Guerrero, the wiry shortstop turned heads right away by reeling off an 11-game hitting streak to start his big-league career. The doubles machine finished with a.311 batting average and a 144 OPS+ — phenomenal stats for someone who was only 21. Toronto could have a third second-generation star in the making in Cavan Biggio. Like Guerrero and Bichette, he’s the son of a former major-league standout. Biggio is 25, so he doesn’t have the upside of the other two, but he hit 16 homers and stole 14 bases in only 100 games last year, which is promising.

The Jays added a good pitcher in free agency by signing former Dodger Hyun-jin Ryu. The Korean lefty will start the opener and should be the ace of a questionable starting rotation.

Pitching is suddenly not the team’s biggest worry, though. The Jays are still looking for a home after the Canadian government rejected their plan to play out of their own stadium, like every other team in baseball. A deal to share the Pittsburgh Pirates’ park appeared to be close, but it fell through Wednesday when local officials didn’t approve. Other possibilities include finding a different team to share a stadium with, hopping around between multiple parks, or setting up shop in Buffalo (home to the Jays’ triple-A affiliate) or Dunedin, Fla. (their spring-training headquarters).

Also, Toronto still plays in a merciless division. The Yankees are co-favourites (with the L.A. Dodgers) to win the World Series, the Rays always field a strong team despite their budget constraints, and the Red Sox remain dangerous despite being too cheap to give superstar Mookie Betts a new contract and trading him to the Dodgers. So the short season could feel like a long one for the Jays.

The Nationals look like one-hit wonders

It’s hard enough for a great team to win back-to-back championships in this sport. A wild-card team that started 19-31 and survived three elimination games in the playoffs? And whose best everyday player left in free agency? Let’s just say the odds of Washington becoming baseball’s first repeat champion since the 1999-2000 Yankees aren’t great.

That’s not to suggest the Nationals didn’t deserve their rings. After that bumpy start, they really hit their stride and forged themselves into a formidable post-season team. They knocked off the championship-favourite Dodgers, humiliated St. Louis and then upset the heavily favoured Astros in the World Series. But they’re really going to miss slugging third baseman Anthony Rendon, who signed with the Angels. Ace pitcher Max Scherzer turns 36 next week and his body broke down in last year’s playoffs. Sous-ace Stephen Strasburg is 32, injury prone and coming off the biggest workload of his career (which happened, conveniently for him, in a contract year).

Nats ace Max Scherzer will throw the first meaningful pitch of the MLB season on Thursday. (Mark Brown/Getty Images)

The Dodgers hope this is finally their year

L.A. has probably been the best team in baseball since 2013. They’ve won seven division titles in a row and captured two National League pennants in that span. But they have zero championships to show for it, and their World Series title drought now stands at 32 years.

Last year was especially crushing for the Dodgers. They won a franchise-record 106 games in the regular season and were heavily favoured to reach their third World Series in a row. Instead, they lost their opening playoff matchup to Washington.

So L.A. isn’t fooling around this year. Even though their roster was already stacked, they poached the MVP-calibre Betts from Boston for pennies on the dollar. The other big piece in that trade, pitcher David Price, decided to opt out of the season over health concerns, but L.A. is so loaded that it might not matter much.

The Dodgers should cruise to another division title, and they’re big favourites to win the NL pennant. But that won’t be good enough. Only a World Series title will do this year. They’re all in. That’s a tough spot to be in for a season that could feature a lot of randomness.

Everybody hates the Astros

With the exception of maybe Jeff Bezos and a few guys like him, it’s hard to say the pandemic has been good for anyone. But if you had to pick the group of people in baseball for whom it’s been the least bad, that would be the Houston Astros.

The big story from spring training, right up until it shut down, was the Astros’ going full heel in the wake of the cheating scandal that cost manager A.J. Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow their jobs and further tarnished the reputation of a franchise that was already trending toward villainy last year. Rather than show up this spring humbled and seeking forgiveness, several members of the team downplayed the signal-stealing scheme that helped them win the World Series in 2017. This infuriated rival players and their fans. Beanballs and boos awaited the Astros at every ballpark they visited this season.

WATCH | Astros prepare for return to field amid scrutiny over cheating scandal:

As it prepares to resume during the pandemic, Major League Baseball is also wrestling with the legacy of a cheating scandal involving World Series champions, the Houston Astros. 8:21

But time has a way of dulling emotions, and a global pandemic has a way of putting things in perspective. Plus, the stands will be empty this season. So the Astros will be spared the venom they’d have faced in a normal year — at least from fans. On Wednesday night, Houston stars Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and George Springer all got plunked by Royals pitchers during an exhibition game.

The Astros are still a top title contender. They’re favoured to win the AL West for the fourth straight time and they have one of the best rosters in baseball — even after losing co-ace Gerrit Cole in free agency to the Yankees. But they’ll have to be able to take the heat.

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