Opening Day in Cincinnati once was something truly special. It traditionally came a day before all other Major League Baseball openers, a nod to the city being the home of America's first professional baseball team in 1869.
But times change and traditions fade and now, thanks to a Thursday rainout, the Reds will play the Washington Nationals on Friday in one of the majors' last 2018 openers. Fittingly, that's an unplanned nod to the Reds' three consecutive last-place finishes in the NL Central and three consecutive seasons of 94 or more losses.
And, despite the locale, the only Big Red Machine on the Great American Ball Park field Friday will be the Nationals, arguably one of the majors' half-dozen or so legitimate powerhouses and, annually, a contender to win it all. Even if the Nationals have yet to reach the World Series -- one reason why former Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez now is the manager, not Dusty Baker.
"We know we're capable of winning the whole thing," said season-opening starter Max Scherzer, who won the last two NL Cy Young awards. "We know we can compete with anybody. That's a fact. Go ask any other ballclub in this league."
Go ask the Reds, who won only one of seven games against Washington in 2017-- a year when the Nationals went 97-65 and won the NL East by 20 games, only to lose in the National League divisional round for the third time in four seasons. The Reds went 68-94 and finished seven games out of fourth place in their division.
That latest playoff disappointment led the Nationals to fire Baker and hire Martinez, who was somewhat unconventional during spring training. He allowed the oft-injured Ryan Zimmerman to skip virtually the entire spring schedule, giving him just two at-bats in an effort to keep him healthy. Martinez also brought in three camels one day, as if to say this is the year the Nationals finally get over the hump.
They probably need only to avoid significant injuries to win a third consecutive NL East title and a fourth in five years. They'll start the season with second baseman Daniel Murphy on the disabled list following offseason knee surgery, but first baseman Zimmerman -- coming off a .303-36 homers-108 RBIs season -- appears fresh after getting nearly all of his spring at-bats mostly in minor league games.
Right fielder Bryce Harper, going into his final season before free agency, also is healthy after potentially missing out on the 2017 NL MVP award because of a late-season hyperextended knee. Harper is looking for another big opening day; he's homered in five openers, including the last three.
The Nationals arguably possess the majors' best 1-2 pitching combination of right-handers Scherzer (16-6, 2.51 ERA last season) and Stephen Strasburg (15-4, 2.52); Strasburg didn't allow an earned run in 14 postseason innings against the Cubs in October. He'll start Saturday in Cincinnati.
"I'm looking forward to the season beginning," Martinez said. "They're ready."
The Reds are about to find out if they're ready after losing 286 games the last three seasons. They're still led by first baseman Joey Votto, who played in all 162 games last season while finishing second in the NL MVP voting to Giancarlo Stanton, and familiar face Homer Bailey -- who's thrown two no-hitters but will be making his first Opening Day start.
"The last few years have been a little rough," said the right-handed Bailey, who couldn't pitch the last three openers because of elbow injuries. "This beats still having stitches in your arm at that time. Yeah, it's definitely better than that."
But the rest of the Reds' roster is largely representative of their seemingly never-ending rebuilding. None of the four starters behind Bailey, for example, has more than 16 starts in the majors -- Luis Castillo, Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano and Amir Garrett.
That's why, manager Bryan Price said of Bailey, "He's best-suited to match up with everybody else's experienced, top-of-the-rotation starter."
Bailey hasn't had much success against Washington, going 1-5 with an 8.44 ERA in six starts. Harper is 1-for-10 against him, but first baseman Matt Adams is 8-for-12 (.667) with one homer. Scherzer is 2-1 with a 2.55 ERA against the Reds; Votto is 3-for-7 (.429) with a homer.
"You get to toe the mound, you're the first one out there," Scherzer said of his third Opening Day start for Washington. "It's an exciting time. It doesn't get old."
Even if constantly losing in the postseason is getting old for the Nationals -- and constantly losing season after season is getting old for the Reds.