In the eyes of many, he's the best pitcher in baseball. In Dodger Nation, he's the best since Hall of Fame icon Sandy Koufax.
An MVP, three Cy Youngs, five All-Star honors, a Gold Glove, a Roberto Clemente Award for his charitable endeavors. He married his high school sweetheart and he's the proud father of little Cali.
On Monday at 4:05 p.m. PT in San Diego, he will start his sixth consecutive Opening Day for the Dodgers, the most since Hall of Famer Don Sutton's seven straight. He will go into that game with a darting 94-mph fastball, an off-the-table curve and a wicked, diving slider.
And a changeup he still hasn't mastered.
Whether it's bunting, pickoff moves or pingpong, Kershaw has always been able to conquer imperfections through determination and practice. Except the changeup.
"It's his white whale," said catcher and Kershaw buddy A.J. Ellis.
Kershaw said developing the changeup has never been an obsession, but he hasn't thrown in the towel, either.
"It's fourth on the depth chart, for sure," Kershaw said. "I still work on it, play catch with it every day. I mess around with it more than any pitch, changing grips. It just doesn't come natural to me. I learned the slider out of desperation. I don't think I've reached the desperation level with that. Maybe there is something mental to it, if you really need to throw it, you throw it. That's probably where I'm at."
Former Dodger and Cy Young winner Eric Gagne, who possessed a changeup that made hitters look silly, just spent his first spring as a Dodgers pitching instructor and said that Kershaw's drive to improve was in evidence by a question Kershaw asked.
"I met him when he signed in 2006, and when he was a rookie we played golf in Spring Training," recalled Gagne. "He doesn't talk a lot, but he learns a lot. Even this year, he came up to me and asked how I threw my changeup. He's never satisfied with whatever his numbers are. He just wants to get better. That's the difference between a good pitcher and one-of-a-kind.
"I just told him to throw it as hard as he can in arm speed. It has to look like the fastball. He's capable of taking anything to the next level. We played catch the other day, he threw a cutter I didn't even know he had. He's not going to throw 97 pmph] the rest of his life. I think he's getting ready for that, for being able to dominate for many years. And he's still himself. He's cool to watch."
Kershaw said don't expect a sudden breakthrough off the Gagne Q&A.
"He had one of the best changeups ever," said Kershaw. "But I'm always asking guys. Zack [Greinke] dominated the league with his changeup, and for three years I asked him every other day how he did it. He'd show me, but at the end of the day, it doesn't really compute.
"It's a different throw than everything else I throw. My ball has a little natural cut and making it go the other way, turning it over, is very different altogether. Just the way I throw, I guess."
Changeup or not, Kershaw at age 28 is the most important Dodger since Koufax. He provides an emotional boost to his team -- and puts an emotional damper on opponents -- that doesn't show up in analytics.
"There's definitely a buzz in the clubhouse the day Clayton is pitching," said Ellis. "Everyone feels we'll be shaking hands in the infield with a W at the end of the game."
Kershaw chooses his words carefully when asked if his current club is good enough for October celebrations.
"If everybody plays up to their capabilities, we'll have a really good team," he said. "I don't know if there's a lot of margin for error for us other than that. Last year you saw what injuries did to us. We just have to do what we're supposed to do. I know that sounds pretty vague, but if we play the way our team was put together we'll be all right."
With Greinke no longer in the rotation, however, one thing even more elusive to Kershaw than the changeup -- that World Series ring -- remains the true white whale.
"Maybe I'll look at the individual stuff 10 years down the road," he said. "But that's not why I play the game. Watching guys win the World Series looks like a lot of fun. I'd kind of like to do that."
There was never really any question about whether Julio Teheran would be granted the chance to make a third consecutive Opening Day start, but the Braves were certainly encouraged to watch Teheran spend the past month looking like a guy deserving of this honor.
Teheran will become the fifth Atlanta pitcher to make three consecutive Opening Day starts when he takes the Turner Field mound for Monday's regular-season opener against the Nationals at 4:10 p.m. ET. The 25-year-old right-hander will carry the confidence he gained as he spent Spring Training showing he is quite capable of bouncing back from last year's disappointing season.
"It feels good whenever you are pitching well," Teheran said. "That's what you want to take to the rubber when the regular season begins. I feel that I'm ready for the regular season. Everything that was working before is working now. I'm good now."
Teheran certainly looked better as he posted a 2.01 ERA and issued just two walks over 22 1/3 Grapefruit League innings. He surrendered just three runs over his final three starts, and each of those were tallied during an inning marred by Nick Swisher's lack of range at first base and Hector Olivera's inexperience in left field.
"His past three or four starts, his command has been impeccable," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He's pitched in, and his breaking ball has been nails. That's good to see as we head into the regular season."
Getting back to commanding the inner part of the plate with his two-seamer against left-handers will be something Teheran will need to focus on throughout this season. As he posted a 4.04 ERA over 33 starts last year, he allowed left-handed hitters to produce a .300 batting average and .893 OPS against him. Right-handed hitters were limited to a .207 batting average and .583 OPS.
Teheran made numerous adjustments last year and ended up allowing one earned run or fewer over six of his final 12 starts he made after moving back to the first-base side of the pitching rubber. This aided him in his efforts to prevent the two-seam fastball from sneaking back over the middle of the plate against left-handed hitters.
When Teheran produced a 2.89 ERA in 2014, he surrendered a .587 OPS to right-handers and a .687 OPS to lefties.
"It was just a matter of mechanics and something that he has focused on changing," Gonzalez said. "He has had success against left-handed hitters in the past."
Teheran joins Phil Niekro, Rick Mahler, Greg Maddux and Derek Lowe as the only pitchers in Atlanta history who have made three consecutive Opening Day starts. But the Braves' current ace stands as the only member of this group to do so before the age of 30.
This will mark the first time Teheran has enjoyed this experience in front of a home crowd. He surrendered two runs over six innings while making his first Opening Day start in Milwaukee on March 31, 2014. Last year, he limited the Marlins to one run over six innings at Marlins Park.
While watching baseball from his home near Sacramento last season, new Nationals manager Dusty Baker took every opportunity he could to watch Max Scherzerpitch, knowing there might be an opportunity to witness history.
"I like watching guys that have a chance to throw a no-hitter almost every time out," Baker said.
Indeed, there were stretches last season where Scherzer seemed to flirt with perfection every time he toed the rubber. He started by carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning on Opening Day against the Mets. He put together the most dominant two-start stretch since at least 1914 -- if measured by game score -- with a one-hit, one-walk performance against the Brewers on June 14, followed by a no-hitter against the Pirates on June 20.
In those two starts, Scherzer threw a combined 18 innings and allowed one hit, one walk and one hit-by-pitch with 26 strikeouts. He came within five outs of throwing his second no-hitter on Sept. 28 against the Reds before punctuating his first season in Washington with a no-hitter against the Mets in his last outing of the season.
When Scherzer takes the mound at Turner Field in Atlanta on Monday at 4:10 p.m. ET to make his second consecutive Opening Day start for the Nationals, he has a chance to match Johnny Vander Meer's record as the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter in consecutive starts.
"I'm not throwing a no-hitter Opening Day," Scherzer said with a laugh at the start of spring. He brought up the strict pitch counts pitchers usually are held to during the start of the season and added: "It's just not going to happen."
If it is possible to fly a bit under the radar after posting a 2.79 ERA with a Major League-leading 8.12 strikeout-to-walk ratio and becoming just the fifth pitcher in history to throw two no-hitters in a season, such was Scherzer's 2015. Normally, that kind of season would have been rewarded with the National League Cy Young Award, but Scherzer finished a distant fifth in the voting, overshadowed because of historically great seasons from Chicago's Jake Arrieta (the eventual winner), then-Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.
Scherzer entered the spring ready to build on his ability to consistently pound the strike zone. He threw first-pitch strikes 71.3 percent of the time, the best in the Majors, helping lead to a career-best 34 walks.
He enters this season as the anchor of the Nationals' rotation, which has the opportunity to be one of the best in the league. And consider Scherzer's answer to a question about how he plans to outdo himself this season.
"I relish pitching underneath pressure," he said. "Put as much pressure on me as possible. I have no qualms handling that, because I expect that out of myself. I expect to pitch well and pitch efficiently."
Most of the time, but not always, the Reds have given the honor of starting Opening Day to the rotation ace, a long-tenured veteran or the pitcher coming off of the best season the year before.
Circumstances forced the Reds into a different direction for Monday vs. the Phillies at 4:10 p.m., as Raisel Iglesias will be handed the ball. Anthony DeSclafani, the team's best returning starter from last season, will open the year on the disabled list with a left oblique strain and is expected to return for the fifth spot on April 10.
That cleared the way for Iglesias, who experienced a Major League Opening Day for the first time last year. After defecting from Cuba in November of 2013, he did not pitch in '14.
"I was in the bullpen that day because I was maybe in need of pitching for the team, but it was a really beautiful team," Iglesias said via translator Tomas Vera. "And now when I'm pitching, I'm going to enjoy the moment."
In his rookie season, the 26-year-old Iglesias was 3-7 with a 4.15 ERA in 18 games including 16 starts. In 95 1/3 innings, he allowed 81 hits and 28 walks with 104 strikeouts and a 1.14 WHIP.
2003: Runelvys Hernandez for the Royals (12 starts, 74 1/3 innings)
2003: John Lackey for the Angels (18 starts, 108 1/3 innings).
Iglesias will also become the second Cuban pitcher to start for the Reds on an Opening Day. Dolf Luque did it in 1921 vs. the Pirates and in 1928 vs. the Cubs.
When Spring Training opened, Iglesias was targeted for the April 10 start vs. the Pirates. After his 2015 season ended a little early in mid-September because of right shoulder fatigue, the training and medical staff had him undergo a shoulder flexibility program throughout the offseason. The work carried into the start of camp, and Iglesias made his debut a little later this spring on March 14.
There were three Cactus League starts, plus a start on Wednesday in a Minor League game where he threw 74 pitches. The belief is he is stretched out enough to get to 90 pitches vs. Philadelphia. The shoulder has felt great throughout camp, according to Iglesias, leaving him open for the adjustment in the timetable.
"The way my arm was feeling in the past, it wasn't a surprise for me the decision the team made to have me start later in Spring Training," Iglesias said. "Mentally, I was prepared to be ready for that first day in any way, whatever the team needed. I was prepared for that first day to be a reliever or a starter and now I'm ready for them. I have to thank God, because I'm healthy and I'm really happy to be able to start the season from Day 1."
Jeremy Hellickson said there are a couple goals for every big league starting pitcher.
First, get to the big leagues. Second, be an Opening Day starter.
"It's definitely a huge honor," said Hellickson, who will open the Phillies' 2016 season on Monday in Cincinnati at 4:10 p.m. ET. "I've been a part of five Opening Days now and just the atmosphere -- standing on the line, seeing everything, how Opening Day goes down -- you kind of just think, 'Hopefully I can pitch one of these game sometime in my career.' It's exciting, that's for sure."
The Phillies acquired Hellickson from the D-backs in a trade in November. He will be a free agent following the season, and it seems unlikely that he will re-sign as Philadelphia rebuilds for the future. The Phils are quietly hoping Hellickson pitches well enough early this season that they can trade him to a contender in July.
It could make Hellickson the first Phillies pitcher to start Opening Day in his first and only season with the organization since Floyd Youmans in 1989.
(Andy Ashby started Opening Day 2000 following a trade with San Diego. He was traded that season to Atlanta, although he began his career with the Phils in 1991-92.)
But that does not mean Hellickson can't make his mark with the Phillies. They are hoping he can influence the team's young starters like Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez as they work to establish themselves.
"This offseason, we made it a priority to add a stabilizing influence to our young rotation, and we think we found that guy in Jeremy," general manager Matt Klentak said. "I think one of the things, on top of the obvious, is that he's a veteran guy, but still just 28 years old. He'll pitch at 29 this season, so we're excited that he's still in his prime. And more than anything, he's a competitor. He wants the ball. We've talked about building an environment, and we think he'll be a very positive influence on our staff."
Hellickson said his goal this season is to pitch the way he did earlier in his career. He went 27-31 with a 3.06 ERA in 70 appearances (64 starts) the first three years of his career, which included winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2011 with the Rays. But Hellickson is 22-27 with a 4.86 ERA in 72 appearances (71 starts) in three seasons since.
"I'd be lying to you if I said I don't think about free agency, but I don't think about it a lot," Hellickson said. "It's definitely an opportunity. I couldn't ask for a better situation to come into. You know, from top to bottom here, this organization is awesome. And all of the guys that I've got to meet so far, we've had a lot of fun so far. So we're all just excited for the season to get started."
Facing a Cy Young winner in the first week of April already qualifies as unfair. Throw in the potential for rain or snow and temperatures just north of freezing, and that classifies as cruel.
But for the hitters on the Red Sox and Indians, that's how the 2016 season -- and the last hurrah for the legendary David Ortiz -- will begin. And for the rest of us, David Price vs. Corey Kluber is an unmistakable Opening Day attraction.
The Price-Kluber matchup will be just the seventh time on Opening Day where both starting pitchers won a Cy Young Award sometime over the previous four seasons. The other matchups occurred between R.A. Dickey (Blue Jays) and Price (Rays) on March 31, 2014; Randy Johnson (Yankees) vs. Barry Zito (A's) on April 3, 2006; Johan Santana (Twins) vs. Roy Halladay (Blue Jays) on April 4, 2006; and Steve Carlton (Phillies) vs. Tom Seaver (Mets) on April 8, 1975, April 6, 1974, and April 6, 1973.
Price is the key acquisition for a Red Sox club many are -- once again -- projecting to go from worst to first in the deep American League East, and Kluber is the leader of an Indians rotation getting widespread industry acclaim as good enough to lead the Tribe to the top of the deep AL Central. They'll oppose each other at 4:10 p.m. ET Monday in Progressive Field conditions expected to be idyllic… for pitching prominence.
Such prominence is what the Red Sox expect in the front end of their rotation from Price and the back end of their bullpen from Craig Kimbrel. A 4.31 staff ERA that was the sixth-highest in the Majors last season masked many of the strides the Red Sox saw from young position players like Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Travis Shaw (who beat out handsomely Pablo Sandoval for the starting third-base job) and prompted aggressive action from president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski.
Now, the Red Sox feel they have something more closely resembling a total package. And they'll need it if they're going to rise from the rut of consecutive seasons with win totals in the 70s and give Ortiz a victory lap on the World Series stage.
"We return most everyone from the fifth-most productive offense in baseball last year," said Red Sox manager John Farrell, "and there's no reason we can't continue to improve upon it."
One of Farrell's closest friends in baseball is Tribe manager Terry Francona. When Farrell was diagnosed with Stage 1 lymphoma last summer, Francona accompanied him to his first chemotherapy treatment.
Thankfully, Farrell has come out cancer-free, and now the focus is on the field. And both Farrell and Francona have teams not to be taken lightly, even if the latter's club does not come equipped with much payroll power.
For the Indians, runs might be difficult to come by not just on Opening Day against Price, but in general. Their most consistent offensive presence, Michael Brantley, will be absent from the opener as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery, and their outfield has been further rattled by the suspension of Abraham Almonte and the wrist impingement holding back Lonnie Chisenhall.
But as the 2015 season evolved, the Indians had a remarkable turnaround in their defensive play, thanks in large measure to the arrival of Rookie of the Year runner-up Francisco Lindor, and their starting staff beyond Kluber made major strides with Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar developing into legitimate ace types all their own.
Of course, the Indians would still like to sprinkle in some runs, and they're counting on another big year from Jason Kipnis and bounce-back seasons from Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes and the newly added Mike Napoli to make it happen.
"I hope we're not just a pitching and defense team, because I don't know if that's good enough," Francona told reporters. "But I do know that doing that, you're going to stay in most games."
The first game is a doozy -- the AL's 2012 Cy Young Award winner Price opposing the 2014 winner Kluber. The temperature will be low, and so might the run totals. But these are two clubs with the capability to be playing in similarly cold climates come October.
Red Sox's projected Opening Day lineup Mookie Betts, RF Dustin Pedroia, 2B Xander Bogaerts, SS David Ortiz, DH Hanley Ramirez, 1B Travis Shaw, 3B Brock Holt, LF Blake Swihart, C Jackie Bradley Jr., CF David Price, LHP
Indians' projected Opening Day lineup Rajai Davis, LF Jason Kipnis, 2B Francisco Lindor, SS Mike Napoli, 1B Carlos Santana, DH Yan Gomes, C Marlon Byrd, RF Juan Uribe, 3B Collin Cowgill, CF Corey Kluber, RHP
The ace can not only set the tone for a game, but also a season. And that's why enthusiasm around the Red Sox is bubbling over for Monday's Opening Day in Cleveland (4:10 p.m. ET), when David Price makes his first official start for his new team.
Life without an ace last year was unkind for the Red Sox, who finished in last place in the American League East for the second consecutive season.
Price will try to lead the charge for a team that is looking to get back among the contenders.
"Well, we've added a guy who is very comfortable with that label, that No. 1 guy that other players look up to, whether you're a pitcher or a position player," said Red Sox manager John Farrell. "They look to that one guy knowing that when he walks to the mound, we've got a chance to beat anyone we go up against."
Being a No. 1 starter is not a burden for Price. It is a role he relishes.
"I enjoy it, absolutely," said Price. "It's something I definitely take a lot of pride in."
Playing for his third team since July 2014, Price looks forward to settling in with Boston after signing a seven-year, $217 million contract.
"I'm very excited," Price said. "We've got a good fountain of youth here. It's going to be great just to feed off all these young guys, to go out there and have the good veteran leaders we have as well. We have a really good mix of youth and veteran guys. You need that, and we definitely have that."
And the veterans and the young players also plan on feeding off of Price.
"You know what you get whenever he goes out on the mound," said Red Sox right-handerClay Buchholz. "The teams he's been on have been able to lean on him for an extended period of time to go out and give the team what he's got every time he goes out."
For Price, it starts on Monday, when he pitches Opening Day for the fifth time in his career, but first on the road.
"It's definitely different," Price said of Opening Day. "You have the added adrenaline. It's a great day. It's a holiday in a lot of cities. It's very special. To get to be a part of it for whatever team you're playing for is a special moment.
"But it's no different. The mound is still 60 feet, 6 inches, even on Opening Day. So just control your emotions, go out there and get outs and give us a chance to win."
The lefty will open against an opponent he's thrived against through the years, going 9-2 with a 2.13 ERA in 13 career starts.
"I've spent my entire career in this league, so it's one thing I definitely benefited from by signing back in the American League and in the AL East in particular," Price said. "I know a lot of these teams. I faced them a lot. Especially last year with Detroit, being in the Central and facing the Indians probably four or five times last year. They're a team I'm very familiar with, and I know what I need to do."
Of course, Price has played with enough contenders to know he can't do it alone.
"Everybody has to do their part," Price said. "It's not all on anybody's shoulders. We're going to have 25 pieces to that puzzle once Opening Day starts. If all 25 guys can just do their part and don't try to do too much and just do what you can do, we feel like we can be very successful."
One team wants to show what it's learned from an emotional defeat in the first round of last year's postseason. The other is hungry for a long-awaited return to October baseball and might just have the team to accomplish it.
When the defending American League West champion Rangers host the Mariners on Opening Day at Globe Life Park on Monday at 3:05 p.m. CT, it will be a matchup of two teams with eyes on the playoffs but a healthy respect for the path that goes through their division to get there.
The Rangers took the Toronto Blue Jays to five games in the 2015 AL Division Series. The lasting impression was the Jose Bautista home run that won Game 5 and the subsequent exclamation point of a bat toss for the ages. The Rangers are heading into the new baseball year with that taste of unfinished business lingering in their mouths.
"We have a good team, better than last year," Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre said. "We have high expectations, and we can't wait until April 4 and start getting it going."
This year, the Rangers come in healthier, with better pitching and more experience. Trade Deadline acquisition Cole Hamels gets the ball for the opener, and he's no stranger to that type of pressure or expectations.
He will assume the ace role this year in the continued absence of Yu Darvish, who has been ahead of schedule in rehab from his Tommy John surgery and is expected to rejoin the rotation sometime in May.
Prince Fielder, Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo, Delino DeShields and Rougned Odor key a dynamic batting order that should score plenty of runs.
In other words, there is a lot to like about the defending AL West champions, and they will be on display for the first time in front of a raucous Texas-sized crowd.
"The atmosphere is always crazy, especially when you open at home," Hamels said. "The Texas Rangers fans are outstanding, so it's going to be sort of that playoff experience. Hopefully, we can continue that for 81 games at home."
But let's not forget the Mariners.
Last year at this time, the Mariners were a trendy pick to not only win this division but to contend for the World Series. Bullpen woes and offensive inconsistency did them in to the tune of a 76-86 record, but new general manager Jerry Dipoto addressed the team's weaknesses over the offseason.
A refreshed outlook under new manager Scott Servais also could have the team right where it needs to be.
Seattle comes in to 2016 with a renewed commitment to on-base percentage and havoc on the basepaths in the form of Norichika Aoki and Leonys Martin. Plus the heart of its fearsome batting order remains intact with Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager all back and healthy. Rotation reinforcements (Nathan Karns, Wade Miley) and a completely restocked bullpen led by closer Steve Cishek and setup man Joaquin Benoit can only help.
Not surprisingly, the man who will take the ball on Opening Day is ace Felix Hernandez, who has been waiting for the chance to pitch in the postseason for his entire career as one of the American League's elite.
"Pitching on Opening Day means a lot," Hernandez said. "It's a new season, a lot of eyes are on you, so it's fun."
Mariners' projected Opening Day lineup Nori Aoki LF Ketel Marte SS Robinson Cano 2B Nelson Cruz RF Kyle Seager 3B Franklin Gutierrez DH Adam Lind 1B Chris Iannetta C Leonys Martin CF Felix Hernandez, RHP
Rangers' projected Opening Day lineup Delino DeShields, CF Shin-Soo Choo, RF Adrian Beltre, 3B Prince Fielder, DH Mitch Moreland, 1B Ian Desmond, LF Rougned Odor, 2B Elvis Andrus, SS Robinson Chirinos, C Cole Hamels, LHP
For Felix Hernandez, pitching on Opening Day has become a part of his annual routine. No active pitcher in the Major Leagues can match what will be his eighth straight opener for the Mariners, and only seven hurlers in history have made more Opening Day starts in a row.
That's an impressive list, topped by Jack Morris with a record 14 consecutive openers to his name from 1980-93. Robin Roberts and Tom Seaver did it 12 times, Steve Carlton and Roy Halladay 10 each and Bob Gibson and Randy Johnson opened nine straight seasons for their teams.
Hernandez, who won't turn 30 until four days after he faces the Rangers in Monday's opener at 1:05 p.m. PT in Arlington, would be lining up for his 10th straight now had the Mariners not opted to open with Erik Bedard in 2008. As it stands, Hernandez has pitched in eight of the last nine season openers for Seattle, and the Mariners have won every one of those games.
Hernandez is a remarkable 6-0 with a 1.49 ERA in his eight Opening Day outings. But here's the rub: Despite all his initial success, the Mariners have never made the playoffs in Hernandez's 11 seasons with the club. And that is certainly not lost on first-year manager Scott Servais.
"Felix has never thrown a pitch in the playoffs. And it's time," Servais said. "We have a lot of work to do to get there and he knows that as well, but for a player to have that kind of career and not pitch in the playoffs yet, it's up to us to get the pieces around him. And it's up to him to pull a few guys along with him. It's going to be a joint effort."
In other words, the Mariners know it's more important how they finish this season than how they start. But it certainly doesn't hurt to open with an ace like Hernandez toeing the rubber in Texas.
Hernandez, who went 18-9 with a 3.53 ERA last year while racking up his 10th straight season with 190-plus innings, no longer is the flamethrower of his youth. His fastball has hovered in the 90-91 mph range the last few years, but he complements that with what is widely regarded as the game's most wicked changeup, a nasty curve and a quality sinker and slider.
The Venezuelan native has learned his craft well.
"There are a lot of guys that have played in this league a long time that have great stuff," Servais said. "And then there are the guys that have good stuff and really know how to pitch. He has both those things."
Veteran Chris Iannetta, who signed as a free agent with Seattle and will catch the majority of games this season, is just getting to understand his new ace.
"He knows what he wants to do, that's the best part of it," Iannetta said. "He's a guy out there with a clue of what's going on and how he wants to attack guys. And then you get in the same rhythm as him and you add your input here and there and it's fun."
Hernandez, who has four seasons remaining on his seven-year, $175 million deal, went through his typical spring this year. His results weren't overpowering. He finished with a 4.11 ERA in four Cactus League starts, then acknowledged that he takes little out of the competition in Arizona other than getting his work in and building his arm for Opening Day.
"It's different [when the regular season begins]," he said. "You've got more adrenaline, more concentration. Pitching on Opening Day means a lot. It's a new season, a lot of eyes are on you, so it's fun."
But what would be a lot more fun? Yes, finishing the season in the playoffs. Pitching at Safeco Field in postseason games. Unveiling King's Court to a national audience in October.
Hernandez isn't making bold proclamations about this being the year. He's been down that road too many times. But he's heard Servais say it's time for him to pitch in the postseason, and he's not about to disagree.
"That's our goal here," he said. "Everybody here thinks it's playoff time. We just need to play together and compete every game."
And that starts Monday, with the King once again leading the charge.
Chris Tillman will get the ball on Monday at 3:05 p.m. ET to start a new season, a chance for the right-hander to set himself -- and the Orioles -- on the right foot.
"Collectively, it's important for all of us to pitch well on the night that we get the ball," said Tillman, who will face the Twins. "Opening Day is important because it's the first game of the new season and everyone's excited -- it's a whole new opportunity -- but I think baseball is good in the fact that we do have 162 games, so we have plenty of starts to show up for."
The Orioles' rotation enters the season as a big question mark as fans, opposing clubs and the organization all wonder if the O's starting pitching can hold up. Tillman, an All-Star in 2013, bouncing back from a disappointing last season is a big part of the equation.
This will be Tillman's third Opening Day assignment, and he is the first O's starter to get the nod for three consecutive years since Mike Mussina did it from 1998-2000.
"It says something about his dependability ... Chris has been a durable performer," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
Tillman has also pitched well in season openers. In 2014, he held the Red Sox to one earned run on seven hits in five innings at Camden Yards in a 2-1 Orioles win. Last year, he limited the Rays to one earned run on four hits in 6 2/3 innings at Tropicana Field and picked up the win in a 6-2 Baltimore victory.
"I think I'm more prepared for it now," Tillman said of his evolution regarding Opening Day. "It was something I hadn't experienced before, so the first one was rough on me. It was the nerves that got to me the first time. The excitement was through the roof, the butterflies deal, and now I know what to expect. I know what our fans do now -- they're as much a part of this as any of us are -- so it's a lot of fun being there."
As someone who competed against Ervin Santana for several years as the two were in the American League West, Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki was convinced Santana had previously pitched on Opening Day.
Suzuki, who played with the A's from 2007-2012 while Santana was with the Angels, went 3-for-33 against him at the plate, while Santana racked up honors such as being an All-Star in 2007 and pitching in the postseason in four different seasons. But Santana, an 11-year veteran, will be pitching on Opening Day for the first time in his career on Monday against the Orioles at Camden Yards.
"I couldn't believe he hadn't had an Opening Day start as a guy as good as Erv is," Suzuki said. "But I guess that says a lot about the teams he's been on. But we're excited about it and we're excited about having him for a full year."
As Suzuki alluded, the Twins only had Santana for half the season last year, as he was suspended for the first 80 games for the use of a performance-enhancing drug. After the long layoff, Santana was inconsistent early, but turned it on down the stretch, going 5-1 with a 1.62 ERA over his last seven outings while going at least seven innings in all of those starts to finish the year with a 4.00 ERA.
With that impressive flurry to end the season and his 1.77 ERA in five Grapefruit League outings, Twins manager Paul Molitor made the decision to have Santana on the mound to open the season for Minnesota.
"He impacted us in a positive way after the break and we brought him in here two winters ago as a reliable guy who can win games and give you innings and compete every start, so we don't think that's going to change," Molitor said. "But it's nice to know we have him from Day 1."
Making only 17 starts last year, Santana saw a slight increase in his velocity and it's continued this spring, as his fastball hit as high as 97 mph and was consistently in the mid-90s. But Santana relies on much more than his fastball, as his slider has always been his put-away pitch and he possesses an above-average changeup he uses to neutralize lefties.
"He can do a lot of things," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "As lean as he is, he's going to give us durability and innings. He's got pitches. Lefties don't bother him much and [he has] a slider that negates righties. He has a nice feel for the changeup and handles the running games. So hopefully we can run him out there for 35 starts."
But it all starts with his outing against Baltimore, and Santana said he'll treat it like any of his other 313 career starts.
"It's an honor," Santana said. "I'm very happy for that. I'm just going to try to take it as a normal game and try not to do too much."