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How the West will be won: Storylines to follow during the 2021 MLB season
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How the West will be won: Storylines to follow during the 2021 MLB season

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A confluence of extreme events came together on Oct. 7, 2020 that almost anyone in Virginia would’ve missed without subscribing to the late-night hours of a newspaper editor.

During Game 2 of the National League Division Series between the Dodgers and Padres, L.A. rookie reliever Brusdar Graterol was tapped to take on San Diego shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr.

Tatis has established himself as one of baseball’s most exciting and brilliant players at age 22 — he was still 21 in this at-bat. Graterol, on the other hand, threw a 100 mph sinker past Tatis for strike one, with the effort that it takes most of us to pick up a remote on the couch.

A second sinker whipped into the strike zone, and Tatis hit it hard — and he knew it. He watched it fly deep to center, winning the Goliath vs. Goliath matchup between a 21-year-old slugger and 22-year-old relief ace.

That fly traveled over the wall, just as Tatis expected. What he didn’t expect was the soaring body and arm of Cody Bellinger, the National League’s most valuable player in 2019. He leaped to the center field fence in Arlington, Texas, and brought the ball back, starting to raise his free hand in celebration before his spikes reached the turf.

The Dodgers went on to win the series, the National League pennant, then the World Series. The Padres, dealing with a handful of significant injuries to their pitching staff, were outclassed.

That play encapsulated the freakish athleticism and power on display in modern baseball, where seemingly every athlete on the field can throw harder, run faster and swing more powerfully than all who came before them.

It also triggered baseball’s arms race in the National League West.

The Dodgers decided that the best team in baseball could use the added boost of Trevor Bauer, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. The Padres sought just about everyone else. They traded for Blake Snell from the Rays, Yu Darvish from the Cubs and Joe Musgrove from the Pirates, brought over South Korea’s best player in infielder Ha-Seong Kim, then gave Tatis a 14-year, $330 million extension, solidifying the young shortstop as a future icon for the city of San Diego.

The story of Major League Baseball in 2021 likely will hinge on these California rivals. Rarely do the two best teams in baseball hail from the same division — the Yankees, Braves and Mets would certainly like a word — but the growing Dodgers-Padres rivalry is impossible to ignore. It’s a 162-game battle between teams lined with superstars, roster depth, and front offices willing to do anything to win, now and into the future.

It’s a breath of fresh California air to these Virginia lungs.

Young superstars

I don’t think I need to explain further what makes Tatis a generational talent. But he’s not the only star in his early 20s who will eye an MVP run, particularly in the National League.

Braves right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and Nationals left fielder Juan Soto have been brilliant in their short careers, though in different ways.

Acuna, 23, sports a power-speed combination reminiscent of Barry Bonds before steroids. In 2019, he was three steals shy of the first 40-40 season since Washington’s Alfonso Soriano in 2006, and that likely remains a goal for the Venezuelan batting leadoff for Atlanta. A computer-based projection system called ZiPS projects Acuna for 43 home runs — the most in baseball. Not bad for a 6-foot leadoff guy.

Soto, 22, got the hardest part out of the way already, when he won a World Series title with the Nats in 2019. But 2020 was a peek at his absurd potential at the plate. He lost some time at the beginning of the year related to COVID-19, but then slashed .359/.490/.695, all of which led the National League. If Acuna showcases the athleticism of early-career Bonds, then Soto can be compared to Bonds’ later period — an incredible mix of power hitting and plate discipline that shouldn’t be possible for a player his age.

Rays shortstop Wander Franco, universally considered the game’s top prospect, likely will get his first major league shot this summer as well, and he could quickly hit himself into baseball stardom. But in the American League, he might have stiffer competition at the top. Some guy named Mike Trout is still around.

welcome back, shohei ohtani

Baseball’s greatest experiment is back in action as Ohtani will enter this season as a pitcher and hitter again.

His Tommy John surgery in 2018 was a massive setback for the Angel after one of the most exciting rookie seasons ever. After a couple of years of trying to return to the mound, Ohtani, 26, looks healthy and primed to be the two-way superstar everyone dreamed he’d be.

In a spring training game against the Padres on March 21, Angels manager Joe Maddon slotted Ohtani as the starting pitcher and leadoff hitter. He struck out five batters across four innings — letting out a grunt as he hit 102 mph on a fastball to Tatis — and reaching base three times in three tries at the plate. He led Los Angeles this spring with a .552 batting average and five home runs.

Nobody has Ohtani’s potential, considering we haven’t seen anything close since Babe Ruth was in Boston. The sport has a lot riding on the native of Japan. If he can’t ull off this experiment, then it’s unlikely anyone else will ever get the chance.

No pressure, Shohei.

stretch it out

Rangers right-hander Lance Lynn, now with the White Sox, led the major leagues with 84 innings pitched in the abbreviated 2020 campaign.

For comparison, former Goochland and ODU star Justin Verlander, currently sidelined after elbow surgery, led the majors with 223 innings for the Astros in 2019.

Most established major league starters will be asked to return to a normal workload, but what will this look like? Often it takes pitchers months to years to ramp back up after missing time because of injury, and now you have every pitcher undergoing similar circumstances, even with healthy ligaments.

Some might not find this task difficult — I’m positive we’ll see Max Scherzer firing in seven or so innings every five days until he can’t physically. But for the others, difficult decisions are in store. Will teams take it easy on their pitchers, limiting pitch/inning counts or using six-man rotations? Or will they bet that traditional workloads won’’t introduce a rash of arm injuries?

Lockout years of the past could give us an idea of how things will go, but there’s no telling. It doesn’t help that pitchers in the National League will be forced to hit again, which has already injured one major pitcher (Arizona’s Zac Gallen).

we can’t ignore the pandemiC

All of us want to go to baseball games again, be it down the street at The Diamond or at Camden Yards and Nationals Park. But as widespread vaccination efforts continue, the specter of COVID-19 remains, and it will play a factor in this season, even if things will look more normal than they did last year.

Testing will remain a key part of the day-to-day process for MLB players. Positive tests and contact tracing will still have the ability to derail teams for weeks at a time, even as the number of vaccinated players increase.

Last year’s 60-game season saw the Marlins and Cardinals nearly crash and burn the second play restarted. Projecting these same concerns over 162 games with lighter overall restrictions, including immediate full stadiums of people in places like Texas, means that the chances that something goes awry is high. Just look at what happened to VCU ahead of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

The Dodgers largely avoided coronavirus problems through their World Series title run, until Justin Turner’s positive test created awkward and confusing final moments during their celebration. The best teams in baseball will likely be those that can dodge any lengthy coronavirus-related absences, and luck will be a factor in that as well.

dgarner@timesdispatch.com

Twitter: @dgarnerrva

— Dylan Garner

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