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4 storylines to watch for Major League Baseball's opening day

The spotlight will be on three of baseball's biggest stars — Aaron Judge of the Yankees, Shohei Ohtani of the Angels and Fernando Tatís Jr. of the Padres — as the 2023 MLB season unfolds.
Elsa; Masterpress; Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images
The spotlight will be on three of baseball's biggest stars — Aaron Judge of the Yankees, Shohei Ohtani of the Angels and Fernando Tatís Jr. of the Padres — as the 2023 MLB season unfolds.

Put on your ballcap, get out your mitt and grab some Cracker Jack: It's opening day!

Major League Baseball's 2023 season begins Thursday with quicker games, bigger bases and many of the game's biggest stars back in action after momentous 2022 seasons (the Yankees' Aaron Judge), exciting World Baseball Classic appearances (the Angels' Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout) and lengthy PED suspensions (the Padres' Fernando Tatís Jr., as of mid-April).

Not sure what to watch for? Here's a quick guide to four storylines as you head to the ballpark this spring:

Three major rule changes are designed to speed up the game

Last fall, league officials announced a handful of rule changes designed to shorten games and prevent injuries. The bases will be 44% larger, which league officials say will reduce collisions and encourage steals. The MLB has also banned the infield "shifts" in which infielders would pack one side of the bases against a batter who favored that side.

But the big one is the pitch clock. This season, a timer will run on every pitch (20 seconds with runners on base, 15 if the bases are empty). Batters must be in the box with eight seconds remaining, or else get called for a strike; the pitcher must begin his motion before the clock strikes 0, or else get called for a ball.

Imagine a pitch clock violation happening at the most dramatic moment possible, the critics said — tie game, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs, full count — think of the uproar over a game decided this way!

Then, of course, that exact scenario played out in February during a spring training game between the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox, leaving batter Cal Conley laughing in disbelief as the game abruptly ended in a tie. And yes, there was uproar.

Still, the pitch clock will remain in place for the regular season. MLB officials say the clock helped reduce the duration of minor league games by 26 minutes and led to more steals. Similar results would likely be welcome in the major leagues, where the average length of a game has stretched to well over three hours.

OK, is this the San Diego Padres' year?

Last year was supposed to be the Padres' year. And, to San Diego's credit, they got pretty close: The Padres won 89 games and made the playoffs, where they topped the Mets and the Dodgers (extra delicious) en route to the NLCS before falling short to the Phillies.

But that felt like a heroic effort without their All-Star shortstop, Fernando Tatís Jr., who missed the entire 2022 season due to a broken wrist followed by an 80-game PED suspension that took effect in August. Tatís had led the National League with 42 home runs the year before; replacing that was impossible, even with the mid-season blockbuster trade for the Nationals' young slugger Juan Soto.

Now, Tatís is healthy and will be eligible to play for the Padres starting April 20. (Until then, you can catch him playing with the Padres' Triple-A affiliate, the El Paso Chihuahuas. "I feel like I'm ready right now," Tatís said this week. "If it would've been go day tomorrow, I would've been ready.")

His return will be a huge boost for the Padres, whose roster already featured big bats in Soto and Manny Machado before they added four-time All-Star Xander Bogaerts this off-season. That's one heckuva lineup, and it might be the ticket to finally deliver San Diego its first ever World Series title.

How will Aaron Judge follow up his historic home run season?

What a joy it was to watch the phenomenal New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge close last season by chasing #62 and breaking the American League home run record. It reignited the old-school national excitement over home run chases as people tuned into Yankees broadcasts hoping to catch the record-breaking dinger.

As we look ahead to this season, let's be honest: He's not going to do it again (probably). But 40 or more home runs seems well within reach if Judge can stay healthy, and hitting 50 would put him in rare company.

His Yankees need it. Though they are perennially in the postseason, they haven't played in a World Series since 2009. The excuses are many — bad play in clutch moments the most compelling — but at the end of the day, while they have what's needed to get to the Series, they simply haven't gotten it done.

Not to mention: New York's most frequent postseason villain of late, the Houston Astros, are coming off their own World Series victory and seem well-poised to be Yankee killers yet again.

Will the Angels' star power finally be enough to reach the postseason?

In a sport in which household names are a dying breed, the Los Angeles Angels have not one, but two — the three-time MVP Mike Trout and the electrifying two-way star Shohei Ohtani, who's been compared to Babe Ruth (which is, amazingly, not really that crazy of a comparison).

Despite that, the Angels have been unable to finish a season above .500, and, having missed the playoffs every year since 2014, they currently own the ignominious honor of baseball's longest active postseason drought (tied with Detroit).

Still, the World Baseball Classic reminded us just how great these two guys can be with the must-see game-deciding matchup between the two superstars, with Ohtani on the mound for his home country Japan and Trout at the plate for the U.S. (Ohtani got the clutch K, and Japan won, 3-2.)

The WBC was must-watch TV. But will the Angels be? Hard to say. Part of the problem has been the team's inability to keep all their stars healthy at once. Keep your eyes on Anthony Rendon, the third baseman who helped take the Nationals to the 2019 World Series but has struggled with injuries since coming to the Angels.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.