From the earliest Opening Day ever to the toughest trips: What you need to know about MLB's 2018 schedule

Mark your calendars for March 29 -- yes, March 29! -- when the 2018 baseball season begins with all 30 teams in action, including a possible Madison Bumgarner-Clayton Kershaw showdown in L.A. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 MLB schedule has been released, which means it's time for playoff-bound teams to hit up season-ticket owners for renewals, and teams like the Phillies and the Mets to plea, "Really, things won't be so miserable next season! We're keeping Thor off that all-paleo diet this year and putting him on the Bartolo Colon diet instead! Give us your money now!"

Here are some highlights of the schedule:

Opening Day: The season starts on Thursday, March 29 -- the earliest start in MLB history, excluding special openers like games in Japan. In an even more extraordinary move, every team will be in action on Opening Day, the first time that's happened since 1968. I like the earlier start: I'd much rather see that extra week of games in late March and early April than pushing the end of the regular season into early October, which pushes the World Series even later into late October or November.

The one interleague matchup on Opening Day is Pirates at Tigers. We should get a Madison Bumgarner-Clayton Kershaw showdown in Los Angeles and the Indians will begin their World Series title defense on the road in Seattle. (Wait, the Indians haven't won the World Series yet?)

More off days: One reason the season has to start a few days earlier is that four additional off days are built into the schedule, putting the final day of the regular on Sunday, Sept. 30. Barring any rainouts, that also means the World Series will conclude in October.

Free baseball! In honor of the team’s 50th anniversary of their first game at the Oakland Coliseum, the A’s game against the White Sox on April 17 will be free. That’s the best promotion in baseball since Potting Soil Night at Safeco Field.

All-Star Game: The All-Star Game will be July 17 in Washington, D.C. -- the first in the nation's capital since 1969, when Willie McCovey hit two home runs to power the NL to a 9-3 win. Although most teams will begin play on the Friday after the All-Star Game, the Cardinals and Cubs will play a day game at Wrigley on Thursday, July 19. I'm sure those two clubs will be thrilled with the lack of an extra day off. That game essentially replaces the "Sunday Night Baseball" game on ESPN as a national game, as that Sunday game before the break was removed from the schedule, per last year's agreement with the Players Association.

Interleague showdowns: This will be the 21st season of interleague play, with the American League on its way this season to winning the series for the 14th consecutive year, holding a 150-135 edge heading into Tuesday's Padres-Twins game. That advantage comes even though the Dodgers went 16-4 in interleague games. The primary interleague rotation for 2018:

  • AL East versus NL East

  • AL Central versus NL Central

  • AL West versus NL West

That could be good news for the AL East and NL Central, at least based on 2017 standings. The NL East and AL Central are both 19 games under .500 in interleague play.

Heading back to Puerto Rico: For the first time since 2010, regular-season games will be played at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan. The Twins and Indians will play a two-game series there April 17-18, both home games for the Twins.

Season-ending series: I always complain that MLB never schedules the Red Sox and Yankees against each other in the final series, but guess what: the Yankees will finish the season at Fenway Park. Good job, MLB. Other potential series of note that final weekend: Cardinals at Cubs, Dodgers at Giants, Astros at Orioles, Rangers at Mariners, Nationals at Rockies.

Most likely World Series rematch: The Indians host the Cubs April 24-25 and play at Wrigley May 22-23, but they don't play the Dodgers, Nationals or Diamondbacks. So maybe it's Astros versus Dodgers, a likely matchup this year if we ignore how those two clubs have played of late. Seriously, can you explain what's going with the Dodgers? What did they do to the baseball gods? Anyway, the Astros and Dodgers meet Aug. 3-5 at Dodger Stadium, their only series of 2018.

Welcome back to Detroit, Justin Verlander? Houston's lone trip to Detroit is Sept. 10-12, so if there's a homecoming for Verlander, it will come late in the season.

Toughest early schedule: Will the Brewers begin 2018 as the defending NL Central champions? Hey, they're still hanging in the race. We might learn a lot about the 2018 Brewers early on, as they have eight games against the Cubs and six against the Cardinals in April, along with a series in New York against the Mets.

Toughest overall schedule: The Mariners. It's always the Mariners. Due to their geographical location, the Mariners always travel more miles than any other club. No wonder they haven't made the playoffs since 2001. They open at home against the Indians and then immediately head out on a road trip to San Francisco, Minnesota and Kansas City. The month ends with a 10-game road trip, so they play 18 road games in April. They have odd things like a Houston-Tampa Bay road trip and a random three-game trip to Anaheim in the midst of a homestand. At least they don't have a 12-game road swing like they did this season.