Justin Verlander

MLB Opening Day: 7 Marquee Pitching Matchups Fans Must Tune In To

Justin Verlander

On Monday, nearly every club starts anew—and most will do so by sending their aces to the mound. Injuries and other circumstances have left the likes of Matt Harvey, Clayton Kershaw and Kris Medlen off the unofficial Opening Day slate of games.

Nevertheless, there are several intriguing pitching matchups in these regular season openers. Here’s a look at seven pairs of stout arms vying to give their respective teams a leg up when the 2014 season officially opens for all 30 teams.

Justin Verlander (Tigers) vs. James Shields (Royals)

With the help of a quality pitching staff fronted by Shields, the Royals won 86 games last season and gave Kansas City reason to believe for the first time in recent memory. In his first year with the Royals, the 31-year old righty went 13-9 with a 3.19 earned run average (ERA). As a team, Kansas City had the best overall ERA at 3.45.

While the Royals are on the rise, Justin Verlander has showed signs of decline. Granted, it’s quite natural for that to happen given his superhuman performances prior to 2013. But a 13-12 record with a 3.46 ERA over 218.1 innings might give new manager Brad Ausmus reason for some concern.

Then again, if you take any stock in spring training stats, his performance in Florida shows that we’re going to see the Verlander of old.

Even in game No.1, this carries more weight for Shields and the Royals—trying to make a statement that the AL Central won’t be a runaway for Detroit.

Chris Tillman (Orioles) vs. Jon Lester (Red Sox)

A pleasant surprise for the O’s last year, Tillman is coming off a campaign that ended with a record of 16-7 and featured 179 strikeouts in just over 200 innings—resulting in his first All-Star selection. For a team like the Orioles that relies mostly on their bats (i.e. Chris Davis), continued success from Tillman would be greatly appreciated in Baltimore.

The loyal fans of New England were greatly appreciative to Lester and the Red Sox. At age 29, the left-hander had a team-high 15 victories. He then backed it up in the World Series, out-dueling Adam Wainwright twice in winning Game 2 and 5 as Boston won its third World Championship since 2004.

In recent history against their respective opponents, Tillman has a slight edge—as he has won three of his past four decisions against the Sox. Lester, meanwhile, was 1-2 versus the O’s last year—allowing 12 earned runs in 23 innings.

R.A. Dickey (Blue Jays) vs. David Price (Rays)

The two recipients of the Cy Young Awards in 2012 struggled to find the same magic in 2013. In his first year with the Blue Jays, Dickey went 14-13 with a 4.21 ERA and a career-high 71 walks.

His team also failed to meet expectations. Despite making many several high-profile offseason additions, Toronto finished in last place—far away from the playoff picture.

Tampa Bay, however, did just enough to get into the postseason—thanks in part to Price. In a one-game playoff to determine the final AL Wild Card spot, the southpaw threw a complete game seven-hitter in a 5-2 victory over Texas.

It was the cap on a strong second half of the year, which was a vast improvement on a poor first half. By July, Price was 1-4 with an ERA over 5.00. From then on, he was 9-4 and more resembled the ace that he is.

Johnny Cueto (Reds) vs. Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)

The Cardinals and Reds have battled it out for the NL Central title multiple times already this decade. There’s no reason to think that neither team will be in contention come September. In addition, it’s likely both of these aces can be among the league’s best.

While Wainwright (19-9, 2.94 ERA in ’13) and the Redbirds are building off recent success and a pennant win, Cueto and the Reds are seeking redemption. Battling right arm troubles throughout the season, Cueto only made 11 starts, but posted a 5-2 mark with an ERA of 2.82. However, he faltered in the NL Wild Card Game to Pittsburgh, which led to another early Reds playoff exit.

Of the few low points in Wainwright’s year, most of them came courtesy of Cincinnati. He went 1-3 with a 7.77 ERA and in his last two starts against the Reds, he gave up 18 hits and 15 runs in eight total innings. He’ll try for win No. 10o of his career on Monday at Great American Ballpark.

Jose Fernandez (Marlins) vs. Jorge De La Rosa (Rockies)

Only Clayton Kershaw had a better ERA in 2013 than the National League’s Rookie of the Year. The product of lousy run support, Fernandez could only muster 12 victories. It appears as if the Marlins’ offense isn’t that much better. However, Fernandez is still getting recognition as being one of the game’s best young hurlers.

The 21-year-old gets his first Opening Day start against a potent Rockies lineup that features Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki.

The 2013 was certainly a breakout season for Fernandez. For De La Rosa (11 years his senior), it was a year on the comeback trail. After missing nearly all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery, he recovered and had a record of 16-6.

His appointment as the starting pitcher on Monday, though, comes at the expense of Jhoulys Chacin and a right forearm issue that put him on the 15-day disabled list.

Sonny Gray (A’s) vs. Justin Masterson (Indians)

After just 12 big league starts and having made his debut less than seven months ago, A’s manager Bob Melvin will hand Gray the ball for the opener of what appears to be a promising 2014 in Oakland.

But if you’ve observed Gray’s demeanor on the mound as well as some solid performances, including his stellar efforts in the ALDS against Detroit, it’s easier to see why he’s already received this honor.

His counterpart in this mound duel is Masterson, coming off a 14-10 season with a league-best three shutouts, and making his third consecutive Opening Day start—all with the Tribe.

Masterson’s numbers in spring training were also impressive. He went 4-0 with a 1.09 ERA and 24 strikeouts.

Jered Weaver (Angels) vs. Felix Hernandez (Mariners)

Just as Sonny Gray and Jose Fernandez are set to get their first taste of getting an Opening Day nod, it’s become old hat for Jered Weaver and Felix Hernandez (11 combined).

If you ask Weaver, his start of 2013 couldn’t have gone much worse. On April 7, he suffered a fractured left elbow after being hit on a line drive off the bat of Mitch Moreland. From there, the highly-touted Angels pitcher quickly fell out of contention.

The Mariners haven’t sniffed postseason contention for more than a decade, despite the pitching prowess of King Felix—who has 110 victories to his name and is set to make his seventh straight start in the season premiere.

Weaver will have to deal with a revised Mariners lineup that includes Robinson Cano, a newcomer to Seattle that Felix Hernandez and company is certainly glad to see.

Hernandez, on the other hand, has three obstacles to encounter—the foremost among them being the much richer Mike Trout.

Brian Wright

About Brian Wright

With over a decade's worth of sports journalism experience, MLB Lead Writer Brian Wright has been featured on Bleacher Report, SB Nation, as well as The Washington Examiner, and is currently a staff writer with the Stafford County Sun (VA). While attending Virginia Tech, Brian covered Frank Beamer's Hokie football teams (among other sports) for the school's daily campus newspaper. As a lifelong die-hard New York Mets fan, there is very little chance Brian will be an unbiased reporter come October.