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Major League Baseball arrives after pandemic pause

Kansas City Royals batter Alex Gordon connects for a sacrifice RBI during an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on July 22. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

July 23 (UPI) -- The 2020 Major League Baseball season finally will get underway Thursday when the Washington Nationals host the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers host the San Francisco Giants.

"We can almost taste it," Yankees star Aaron Judge said Tuesday. "It has been a long journey to get to opening day. I know our team is ready.

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"I'm just excited to get back on the field and play the game that I love. I hope to bring some positivity into the world, with a lot of negativity going on."

Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., will serve as the venue for the first game of the abbreviated season, which was reduced from 162 to 60 games because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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The MLB season had been slated to start March 26, but all major professional sports leagues were suspended in mid-March because of the pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country's top infectious diseases expert, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch before the Yankees and Nationals game, which starts at 7:08 p.m. EDT in Washington, D.C.

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"They are going to be ready to compete," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said of his team. "That's all you can ask them to do."

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The World Series champion Nationals had been scheduled to take on the Yankees on the original MLB opening day. Ace pitcher Max Scherzer will take the mound for the Nationals, while Gerrit Cole, who signed a $324 million contract this off-season, will start for the Yankees.

No fans will be allowed to attend the game or the nightcap contest at Dodger Stadium due to COVID-19 safety precautions and bans on large gatherings.

Both games will air on ESPN.

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Yankees at Nationals

Scherzer and Cole are two of baseball's stingiest pitchers, with each posting sub-3 ERAs in 2019. The Yankees and Nationals could play a low-scoring game if Scherzer and Cole put in strong performances.

The did not face each other in 2019 regular season. Cole's Houston Astros also did not play against the Washington Nationals during the 2019 regular season, but they did battle in the World Series.

Scherzer won Game 1 of the World Series after he allowed five hits and two runs in five innings for the Nationals on Oct. 22 in Houston. Cole allowed eight hits and five runs in that appearance.

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Cole returned to form for Game 5 of the World Series when he allowed just three hits and one run in seven innings to pick up a victory.

While Scherzer obviously will face a different Cole squad in this affair, Cole's foes also have changed within the Nationals' lineup. The World Series champions lost several key players, including third baseman Anthony Rendon.

Young slugger Juan Soto was set to lead the Nationals' offense, but will miss the start of the season after he tested positive for COVID-19. The Yankees boast a healthy offensive barrage led by Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres and D.J. LeMahieu.

The Yankees and Nationals game is scheduled for a 7:08 p.m. EDT first pitch Thursday at Nationals Park. Rain is in the forecast. The Yankees are a slight favorite on most betting sites.

Giants at Dodgers

The Giants and Dodgers are scheduled for a 10:08 p.m. EDT first pitch Thursday at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

The Dodgers have long been one of the best teams in the National League, but haven't been able to clinch a World Series trophy since 1988. Ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw will look to spark the Dodgers to short-season success in 2020 when he takes the mound against Giants starter Johnny Cueto.

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"I'm very excited to start opening day, especially when it didn't look very good for a while that we were going to get to play," Kershaw said. "It's almost a sigh of relief that the three months we stayed working and getting ready might actually pay off for some sort of season."

Cueto made just four starts in 2019 after he recovered from right-arm surgery. He allowed five hits and five runs in his final start of the season, a Sept. 27 loss to the Dodgers. Kershaw -- who owns the lowest ERA for any active MLB pitcher -- allowed 10 hits, three runs and five walks in two starts last season against the Giants.

The three-time Cy Young award winner also had 12 strikeouts in 11 innings in his 2019 starts against San Francisco.

The Dodgers are among the betting favorites to win the World Series. Los Angeles added some star power to its lineup this off-season with trades for Mookie Betts and David Price.

The Los Angeles Dodgers' trade for 2018 American League MVP Mookie Betts was one of the biggest moves of the MLB off-season. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
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Price will not play this season, but Betts -- the 2018 American League MVP -- will slide into a lineup that includes 2019 National League MVP Cody Bellinger to form one of the most feared offensive attacks in baseball.

The Dodgers also boast sluggers Max Muncy and Joc Pederson and Justin Turner, one of the league's best hitters.

The rebuilding Giants enter the game as heavy underdogs. They did not have any players with more than 21 home runs or 87 RBIs in 2019. San Francisco also had the fourth-worst team batting average in baseball last season.

The off-season additions of veterans Hunter Pence and Wilmer Flores should help the Giants' bats, but the Dodgers are heavy favorites to win the game.

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