Baseball is back. The home runs are back. The blazing fastballs blurring across our TV screens are back. The bat flips, the doubles in the gap, the "how did he do that?" defensive plays, the box scores, the exit velocities, the hot takes, the debates, the hopeful late-game rallies, the walk-off hits, the beautiful background noise of summer, it's all back.
If you watched Thursday night's two games, however, you noticed that quarantine baseball is not exactly the same. Before we preview all 14 of Friday's Opening Day games, here are nine ways the weirdest baseball season ever will be different in 2020:
1. No fans in the stands. Some teams will use cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats behind home plate. Fox announced it would include computer-generated fans on its broadcasts, starting with the three games it is televising Saturday. In watching these early games, there is no doubt the empty ballparks create an unusual viewing experience, kind of like watching a game from the Kingdome in 1983. The games might sound relatively normal though, as stadium engineers will pump a variety of crowd noises through the ballpark sound systems.
2. Social distancing, no spitting, no sunflower seeds, no high-fives or fist bumps, no arguments and definitely no brawls. At least, that's the plan, although I saw some high-fives and fist bumps during exhibition games. Managers and coaches will wear masks and several players have been wearing them during games as well. Not sure about mascots.
3. Social justice initiatives. We've seen several players kneeling during the national anthem during exhibition games -- and at least one manager, Giants skipper Gabe Kapler -- and players can wear "Black Lives Matter" or "United For Change" patches as well BLM T-shirts during batting practice. All of the Nationals and Yankees took a knee before the anthem during pregame ceremonies Thursday night. Further, MLB has eliminated its cleat restrictions for 2020, so expect some players to include social justice messages on their shoes.
4. Regional schedule. The 60-game schedule will feature 40 total games against division opponents (10 matchups with each other team) and 20 games against teams from the corresponding regional division. So we'll get Dodgers-Astros and Yankees-Mets, but no Yankees-Astros or Dodgers-Nationals. At least until the playoffs.
5. Designated hitter in the National League. Which means a few more runs, assuming the ball remains as "lively" as it was in 2019. American League teams averaged 4.88 runs per game in 2019 compared to 4.78 for National League teams. The gap was a little bigger in 2018, when the AL averaged 4.53 to 4.37 for the NL. For now, this is just a temporary rule for 2020 and as controversial as it is, it might not be the most contentious of the season ...
6. ... because extra-inning games will now start with a runner on second base. This will create an interesting strategic decision for managers. Does the visiting manager automatically attempt to bunt the runner over to third base? I don't think so, given the lack of bunting in today's game and the propensity of strikeouts that could leave the runner stranded on third. Rather than play for one run, look for teams to play for a big inning. The other major rule change: Relievers must face a minimum of three batters (unless the inning ends), a change that was already in place before quarantine baseball.
7. Roster size. Teams will start with 30 players on the active roster, trim down to 28 on the 15th day of the season and then to 26 players on the 29th day. There will be no expanded rosters for September. There will be one trade deadline date, Aug. 31.
8. Shiny new stuff! The Rangers open a new ballpark with a retractable roof and also have a new uniform set, including powder blues that they were originally scheduled to wear for Sunday home games. The Twins and Blue Jays are also unveiling the 1980s-style powder blues look, and the Diamondbacks have gone back to a cleaner style including traditional road grays instead of the dark slate that many fans despised. The Brewers have finally brought back the ball-in-glove logo to go with a new uniform set that features the Robin Yount/Paul Molitor-era block lettering. The biggest change, however, goes to the Padres, who are going back to their original brown and gold color scheme that looks terrific on the home pinstripes.
9. Expanded playoffs. The league and players' union agreed to a plan that would send 16 teams to the playoffs. Get ready for that World Series between the 28-32 Mariners and 29-31 Rockies!
Now, on to Friday's exciting slate of games!
What to watch for: DeGrom had some back tightness in summer camp but said Tuesday that is "totally in the past." He's aiming for his third straight Cy Young Award and hopes to pick up where he left off in 2019, when he had a 1.44 ERA in the second half. Soroka, last year's runner-up for NL Rookie of the Year after posting a 2.68 ERA, will be the youngest Opening Day starter in franchise history at 22.
You might not realize he's here: The Mets just signed Brian Dozier, and while he'll start out at the team's alternate team training site, with Jed Lowrie on the IL because of knee discomfort and 37-year-old Robinson Cano coming off his worst season, Dozier could get a chance at second base if Cano struggles.
Fun bet: Not including two short starts of less than five innings, deGrom has had six starts over the past two seasons when he gave up no runs and didn't get a win. Will he give up no runs in this game and come away with another no-decision?
What to watch for: Reds center fielder Nick Senzel said he shed 20 pounds while in quarantine and wants "to be the best center fielder in the league." He says he feels faster and is more comfortable in center after moving there as a rookie from the infield. The No. 2 overall pick in 2016 also looks to improve at the plate after hitting .256/.315/.427.
You might not realize he's here: Looking to boost last year's league-worst offense, the Tigers brought in veterans C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop and Cameron Maybin -- all of whom could become trade bait at the Aug. 31 deadline.
Fun bet: Will Nicholas Castellanos hit a double? Castellanos hit 58 of them last year for the Tigers and Cubs, the most since Todd Helton had 59 in 2000.
What to watch for: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette will make their first Opening Day starts for the Blue Jays. This is also one of the best pitching matchups of the day. Ryu, who led the NL with a 2.32 ERA, makes his Blue Jays debut after signing a four-year contract, while Morton is coming off a third-place finish in the Cy Young voting.
You might not realize he's here: Guerrero is moving to first base as the Blue Jays give Travis Shaw a shot at third base. Shaw hit 63 home runs for the Brewers in 2017-18 but slumped to a .157 average in 2019.
Fun bet: The Rays experimented with a four-man outfield in spring training after using the formation a couple of times in 2019. Will they unveil it in the opener?
What to watch for: Bryce Harper has traditionally been a hot starter. He didn't homer in his Phillies debut last year, but he did homer in his next three games, he homered three times in his first five games in 2018, he homered on Opening Day three straight years from 2015 to 2017 and he homered twice on Opening Day in 2013.
Fun bet: Will Harper hit a home run?
What to watch for: Jose Ramirez finished third in the MVP voting in 2017 and 2018, then got off to a horrendous start in 2019, hitting under .200 through his first 66 games. He then figured it out and hit .327/.365/.739 in the second half. Cleveland needs second-half Ramirez from the get-go.
You might not realize he's here: Domingo Santana was brought in to provide outfield and DH depth for Cleveland, but with Bradley Zimmer and Greg Allen on the initial roster, that could push Franmil Reyes to a DH role and leave Santana as a role player.
Fun bet: Bieber ranked 12th among qualified starters in swing-and-miss rate in 2019 (tied with Stephen Strasburg). He averaged just under 15 per game. Over/under on 15 swings-and-misses?
What to watch for: A great contrast in styles between Woodruff and Hendricks, two of the more underrated starters in the majors. Out of 130 pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2019, Woodruff ranked seventh in average fastball velocity while Hendricks ranked 128th.
You might not realize he's here: The Brewers lost Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas, but added a slew of veterans to help fill out the lineup: Omar Narvaez, Justin Smoak, Eric Sogard, Avisail Garcia, Jedd Gyorko and Brock Holt.
Fun bet: Will Christian Yelich hit a home run? Yelich hit .315 with five home runs against the Cubs last season -- but .213 with no home runs during his MVP season in 2018. He's 6-for-24 lifetime against Hendricks with one home run and eight strikeouts.
What to watch for: This is more about what not to watch for. No Mookie Betts in right field. No Chris Sale on the mound. No David Price in the dugout. But Xander Bogaerts (.309, 33 HRs), Rafael Devers (.311, 32 HRs) and J.D. Martinez (.304, 36 HRs) still give the Red Sox one of the best offensive trios in the league.
You might not realize he's here: How about Milone? He was a non-roster invitee to spring training and draws the opening assignment for the Orioles as 2019 All-Star John Means is sidelined because of a tired arm. Milone went 4-10 with a 4.76 ERA for Seattle last year.
Fun bet: Can you name five players in the Orioles' starting lineup without looking at their roster?
What to watch for: The Rangers have a shiny new ballpark in Globe Life Field -- not to be confused with that ancient relic Globe Life Park. While the running joke is the outside looks like a Costco, the inside has a lot to offer. The upper decks are much lower and closer to the field than in other new parks and the distance from home plate to the backstop is just 42 feet, the shortest in the majors.
You might not realize he's here: Matt Kemp hit .200 in 20 games with the Reds last season, including 19 strikeouts and one walk, but the Rockies are apparently giving him a shot at DH duties.
Fun bet: Will a baserunner get thrown out trying to advance on a wild pitch when the ball rebounds off the backstop right back to the catcher?
What to watch for: White Sox rookie center fielder Luis Robert already signed a long-term extension, so no need for the team to manipulate his service time. With his power/speed combo -- he hit .328 with 32 home runs and 36 steals in the minors -- he has a chance to become one of the most exciting players in the majors.
Fun bet: The Twins averaged 1.90 home runs per game in 2019. Over or under two home runs in the opener?
What to watch for: Flaherty's second half last season wasn't just the best in the majors, but one of the best of all time. Over his final 16 starts, he had a 0.93 ERA and held batters to a .139 average. Based on that performance, he enters 2020 as a top Cy Young contender.
You might not realize he's here: Jarrod Dyson will be Pittsburgh's center fielder after spending the past two seasons with the Diamondbacks.
Fun bet: Will Flaherty give up a run?
What to watch for: This is a fun matchup with Bumgarner in his new uniform -- which the Diamondbacks have tweaked for 2020 -- and Paddack coming off a terrific rookie season and wearing the Padres' nice new pinstripes with the throwback brown and gold color scheme.
You might not realize he's here: The Padres have two-thirds of a new outfield with Tommy Pham in left and Trent Grisham in center, both acquired via trades to help give the Padres two hitters with some on-base skills, a problem area last season.
Fun bet: Over/under 1.5 on the number of spectacular things Fernando Tatis Jr. does -- a home run, a great throw, a mad dash on the bases, a bat flip, etc.
What to watch for: Verlander would have missed the start of the season back in April after having surgery for a groin issue, but now he's ready, making his 12th career Opening Day start. With Roberto Osuna not yet ready for game action, look for Ryan Pressly to serve as the Astros' closer.
You might not realize he's here: The Astros traded for Martin Maldonado late in the season in both 2018 and 2019, and now he's with Houston from the start after signing as a free agent. He replaces the departed Robinson Chirinos as the regular catcher.
Fun bet: Will the Mariners get a hit? I kid, Mariners fans, I kid! But good luck beating Verlander. Since joining the Astros, Verlander has started eight times against Seattle and the Astros are 7-1. Then again, good luck just beating Houston. The Astros went 18-1 against the Mariners last year, outscoring them 123-62.
What to watch for: Stripling draws the start for the Dodgers because Walker Buehler is behind schedule and won't pitch until next week. After missing much of 2018, Samardzija had a solid 2019, making 32 starts with a 3.52 ERA.
You might not realize he's here: The Dodgers signed Blake Treinen as a free agent. He was great for the A's in 2018 and not great in 2019, but if he finds the strike zone again and Kenley Jansen falters out of the gate with a couple of blown saves, Dave Roberts might not hesitate to make Treinen the closer.
Fun bet: The Giants averaged a meager 2.36 runs per game against the Dodgers last year. Let's set an over/under of 2.5 runs for them in this game.
What to watch for: Mike Trout! The BPITG had raised some doubts about his desire to play in 2020 -- his wife is due to give birth Aug. 3 to their first child -- but he told reporters on Wednesday, "I'm playing." That's all Angels fans needed to hear. Unfortunately, Anthony Rendon won't be in the lineup as he's out because of an oblique injury. The Angels are hoping he misses just a couple of games.
You might not realize he's here: Jason Castro takes over as the catcher for the Angels after their backstops struggled at the plate in 2019.