HOUSTON — Whether it’s the smell of the grass, the sound of the bat connecting with the ball, eating countless hot dogs or the feeling of optimism surrounding your favorite team, Opening Day symbolizes a special occasion and holds a significant meaning to everyone.
For the Houston Astros, the 2010 regular season offers a fresh start for veterans, such as Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, and a new beginning for rookies, such as Tommy Manzella.
Ultimately, the Astros would like nothing more than to improve upon the team’s disappointing 74-88 record in 2009 and contend for the NL Central title.
Owner Drayton McLane Jr. and general manager Ed Wade said goodbye to former manager Cecil Cooper with 13 games remaining last season, and hired former Boston Red Sox bench coach and first-time big league manager Brad Mills last October to restore order and build a winner.
With the Astros set to host the NL West San Francisco Giants for a three-game series beginning Monday night at Minute Maid Park, nothing stands out more than the exceptional Opening Day pitchers’ duel between two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum and three-time All-Star ace Roy Oswalt.
Both Lincecum and Oswalt literally define the word “dominant.”
It’s no secret that the 25-year-old Lincecum, arguably the best starting pitcher in Major League Baseball, enjoys facing the Astros. In five career starts, he’s posted a 2-0 record with a 1.67 ERA, including 40 strikeouts over 32 1/3 innings.
As for Oswalt, who will be making a club-record eighth consecutive Opening Day, the 32-year-old right-hander has faired well against the Giants over the course of his nine-year career, going 5-5 with a 3.70 ERA in 13 starts.
With the firepower taking the mound Monday, one can predict a low-scoring contest.
Which offense can gain the upper hand?
Will Giants slugger Pablo Sandoval generate any success against Oswalt? What about veteran standouts Edgar Renteria, Bengie Molina, Aaron Rowand, Mark DeRosa and former Astro Aubrey Huff?
Can Gold Glove center fielder Michael Bourn get on base and utilize his blazing speed against Lincecum? Is Hunter Pence, Lee or Pedro Feliz going to come up big? How well can the offense perform with the absence of Berkman, who’s currently on the 15-day disabled list (swelling in left knee)?
Will late-inning bullpen help be the key?
Giants closer Brian Wilson and setup man Jeremy Affeldt provide a solid late-inning duo for manager Bruce Bochy, while Astros closer Matt Lindstrom and setup man Brandon Lyon expect to turn heads in 2010.
Still, the spotlight belongs to Lincecum and Oswalt.
Although Lincecum and Oswalt are both coming off solid outings last Wednesday in minor league games, the big question remains whether or not each pitcher has worked out their kinks from this spring.
Lincecum finished 0-2 with a 6.94 ERA in four starts, and Oswalt went 1-0 with a 0.90 ERA in three official starts. Also, Lincecum admitted to MLB.com recently that his fastball has lacked overall command and life.
Will health be an issue Monday night?
Lincecum developed a tiny cut on his middle finger March 26 against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, while Oswalt received an injection in his lower back — a lingering injury — last week in Houston after battling a sore left hamstring and tightness in his left glute.
Expect Opening Day to be a grind-it-out contest between a playoff-hopeful Giants squad and a team with plenty to prove in the Astros.
Who will outperform the other — Lincecum or Oswalt?
We’ll just have to wait and see.
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