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Who To Watch In 2017 As Baseball Returns

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Ah, spring - flowers bloom, the sun shines, and hope springs eternal for baseball fans everywhere. I mean, come on, the Chicago Cubs won last year. Anything can happen. Games start this Sunday, so we called up Jessica Mendoza. And she is a baseball analyst for ESPN.

Hey, it's David Greene. How you been?

JESSICA MENDOZA: I'm excited 'cause the season is here - finally (laughter).

GREENE: Finally. I mean, full disclosure, I am a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. So I was not all that happy with the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. So I - are we done with them? I mean, it'll be another 108 years?

MENDOZA: (Laughter) We can be. I don't have - I'm, like, one of the few that doesn't have them repeating. So...

GREENE: You don't? Why not?

MENDOZA: I feel like - I mean, they're still the best team in baseball, no doubt. But I felt like what helped them be so successful was the fact that they had starting pitchers that pitched every single game. Like, they didn't have injuries that you saw happen to the Indians, the Dodgers. I mean, they used 15 starters (laughter) last year. And I think that that is going to play a part in their run prevention. I think the Pirates are going to be a strong team. I think the Cardinals are going to be better than they were last year. So I don't think the NL Central is going to be as easy.

GREENE: Well, is there a city out there - a baseball city that you think is going to be pleasantly surprised?

MENDOZA: The Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies.

GREENE: Huh.

MENDOZA: Yeah. If you're talking, like, teams that are like - here we go. Are we rebuilding? (Laughter) Like, what's happening? I think they have a bounce back in A.J. Pollock who - he - I mean, no one knows this guy's name, but he is one of the most dynamic players in the game. And he got hurt last year, was out the entire season. And he's a young guy, center fielder. The guy can't hit. So the Diamondbacks are - you know, if you're living in Phoenix right now, they get - all right, spring training's leaving. Here we go.

GREENE: Yeah. I think ears are perking up for people listening in Phoenix right now. I can already tell.

When I think of sort of the personal story that I'm following this year, Andrew McCutchen, you know, outfielder for...

MENDOZA: Yeah.

GREENE: ...My Pittsburgh Pirates. He had such an off year. He wrote this beautiful essay in The Players' Tribune talking about that he thought every day he would look at his phone and find out that he was being traded. But he stayed with the Pirates, and he loves the city. Is there a personal story somewhere that you're really following?

MENDOZA: I feel like the biggest storyline coming in is coming off the biggest World Baseball Classic that's been as far as fan support, just people watching. The U.S. won. I saw more passion - and this is coming from an Olympic athlete, OK? So I'm someone that resonates with USA across the chest and playing against these other countries. I went out in LA to the finals as a fan, which I can't remember, honestly, the last time I was a fan - right? - of a baseball game. You know, I work.

GREENE: (Laughter) You're usually working, yeah.

MENDOZA: Yes, exactly. And to be around the players and the passion that they had, you're seeing what, to me, is the best part of the game. It's really showing the emotions that come with when you really want to compete and go out there and win.

GREENE: It almost sounds like it's getting back to the basics. And it's just love for the sport.

MENDOZA: When we were 10, right? When all of us were out there playing the game - when it's just, like, you know, your - I'm coaching my son's Little League team, right? So they're 7 years old. And, you know, they're going to dogpile for a second out in the third inning. (Laughter) You know, like, they don't...

(LAUGHTER)

MENDOZA: And then at some point, they're told, hey - you know what? - don't show your emotion. Be classy.

GREENE: Well, how's his team going to do? I mean, you're the manager, so you're a little biased.

MENDOZA: (Laughter).

GREENE: But high hopes, high expectations?

MENDOZA: Right now - I mean, if we can get the kids to run to first instead of third...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...That'll be a start.

MENDOZA: Yeah, they're really into just - why go to first when third is right there? And then I'm that much closer to home.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Oh, I love that. That is Jessica Mendoza. She is a baseball analyst for ESPN, also a former Olympian. And she joined us on Skype.

Jessica, thanks so much.

MENDOZA: Oh, this was awesome, anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.