NEW YORK — No more practice runs for Mickey Callaway.
Opening day has arrived for the rookie manager of the New York Mets, and his heart probably will be pounding at a mile a minute by the time Noah Syndergaard fires his first 100 mph fastball Thursday against the St. Louis Cardinals.
“I usually go out in the dugout about an hour before the game because I like to watch the fans come in and feel the ballpark come alive,” Callaway said. “I’ve never been able to do that here at Citi Field. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like, so that’s when I’m going to get the goose bumps.”
Yoenis Cespedes, Jay Bruce and the rest of Callaway’s club worked out Wednesday under overcast skies in Queens as they got ready to face Carlos Martinez and the Cardinals in their opener. Traditional bunting was already draped around the stands, while painters and other workers put the finishing touches on some spruced-up clubs and corridors inside.
Syndergaard will get the ball for his second consecutive opening-day assignment, tabbed by the Mets (mostly healthy at last) after 15-game winner Jacob deGrom was slowed at the outset of spring training by a stiff back and the birth of his child, putting him on schedule for the second game instead.
The hardest-throwing starter in the majors, Syndergaard pitched only 30 1/3 innings last year because of a torn lat muscle.
“It feels kind of weird right now, honestly. I’m really excited to get out there,” he said. “I’m ready to get back out there and hear the crowd, the electricity of all the fans out there. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Martinez, a two-time All-Star with nasty stuff himself, was 12-11 with a 3.64 ERA last season. He threw 205 innings in 32 starts, including an NL-best two shutouts.
New slugger Marcell Ozuna makes his St. Louis debut after arriving from Miami in an offseason trade, but the Cardinals are unsettled at closer following several injuries.
“I love our club,” manager Mike Matheny said near the conclusion of camp in Jupiter, Florida. “I really like our starters and a lineup that has really once again kind of showed its depth all through this spring, especially here at the end. What we were hoping for we are seeing.”
Both teams expect to contend as they try to rebound from disappointing seasons.
St. Louis finished third in the NL Central at 83-79, missing the playoffs for the second straight year after making five appearances in a row.
New York was ruined by injuries and poor pitching, plummeting to 70-92 following consecutive playoff berths and a trip to the 2015 World Series.
“I think it’s pretty crucial for us to come out of the gates hot and really prove to a lot of people that we’re here to compete and we’re going to have a hell of a year,” Syndergaard said.
Despite losing their first eight openers in the 1960s, the Mets boast baseball’s best record on opening day at 36-20. They’ve won 21 of their last 24 season openers at home.
“I’m anxious to get out there and see what our ballclub can do,” said Callaway, hired to replace Terry Collins after a successful run as Cleveland’s pitching coach. “I think I’m excited, anxious — there’s probably a lot of emotions that’ll hit me tomorrow. But I really feel like I’m in a good place to go out there tomorrow and be the best we can all be.”
Callaway said Kevin Plawecki will catch instead of Travis d’Arnaud. Syndergaard will bat eighth, with 22-year-old shortstop Amed Rosario in the No. 9 hole. “It’s not going to be something that happens every game. I think it takes a little pressure off of Rosario,” Callaway explained.
Cespedes will bat second, followed by Bruce, in a lineup that features newcomers at third base (Todd Frazier) and first base (Adrian Gonzalez). Brandon Nimmo will play center field and hit leadoff in place of All-Star slugger Michael Conforto, who is coming off shoulder surgery. Conforto is ahead of schedule in his recovery and could return late next week in Washington.
The Cardinals set their 25-man roster for opening day — they will carry 13 pitchers and only three outfielders. Right-handers Luke Gregerson (left hamstring strain), Alex Reyes (right elbow) and Adam Wainwright (left hamstring strain) were placed on the 10-day DL, retroactive to March 26. The team recalled Jack Flaherty from Triple-A Memphis and optioned fellow right-hander John Brebbia to its top farm club. St. Louis also selected the contracts of rookie right-hander Jordan Hicks and catcher Francisco Peña from Memphis. Right-hander Josh Lucas and infielder Breyvic Valera were designated for assignment.
DOWN ON THE FARM
Mets outfielder Tim Tebow will begin the season at Double-A Binghamton. The former NFL quarterback and 2007 Heisman Trophy winner was promoted from Class A after going 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts in big league spring training. … Bryce Brentz, claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh on Monday, cleared waivers and was sent outright to Triple-A Las Vegas.
AP freelance writer Chuck King contributed from Jupiter, Florida.
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