Familiar NC names ready to shine in baseball’s comeback season

MLB returns with a full season planned

Hickory's Madison Bumgarner will be the opening day starter for the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Ashley Landis / AP Photo)

When the 2021 MLB season begins, a familiar face will be taking the mound to get things started.

Madison Bumgarner has been named the opening day starter for the Arizona Diamondbacks and will get his team’s season started for the sixth time in his career. It will be his first for the D-Backs and first since 2019.

The product of Hickory and South Caldwell High School is just one of several North Carolina products looking to return to past heights in this comeback season for Major League Baseball.

After a bizarre 60-game regular season due to last year’s pandemic, MLB is ready to try the full 162-game slate this year, gradually allowing more and more fans to attend games again.

Bumgarner earned the start after Zac Gallen, a UNC Tar Heels product and one of the top young pitchers in the NL last year, hurt himself taking batting practice. Gallen will start the year working his way back from a hairline fracture.

The last time we saw Ryan Zimmerman, who was born and raised for his early years in Washington, North Carolina, the veteran was spraying champagne with his Washington Nationals teammates after winning the 2019 World Series.

Zimmerman opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID concerns, and there was speculation it may lead to his retirement. Zim has shown there’s still plenty left in the tank, however, hitting six home runs in 23 spring at-bats.

He’ll be joining teammate Trea Turner, a product of NC State Wolfpack baseball and someone who certainly doesn’t need to make a comeback. Turner is on his way to developing into a star for the Nats, and Las Vegas oddsmakers have him as the co-favorite to lead MLB in hits this year. He’s also the second most-likely bet to lead the NL in steals.

Turner’s former Wolfpack teammate Carlos Rodón is showing signs of a bounce-back year after being surprised by the White Sox decision not to tender him a contract offer in the offseason, making him a free agent. Rodón returned to the Sox after what he calls a “wake-up call” and has had a strong spring. Rodón struck out 16 in 13 2/3 spring innings, walking just one to earn a spot in the Chicago rotation.

Two other players who opted out of 2020 will look to follow Zimmerman’s lead and get back into their form from 2019 and earlier. Chris Archer, a product of Clayton High and the Durham Bulls, returned to the Tampa Bay Rays and has shown off a new changeup in the spring. He’ll follow a one-inning “opener” to pitch in what passes for the Rays rotation to start the season.

Marcus Stroman, formerly of Duke, also returns after missing all of last season. He’ll be a mainstay in a strong Mets rotation.

The Mets will be trying to beat out the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. Orange High’s Bryse Wilson, older brother of NC State linebacker Payton, appeared to win the job as Atlanta’s fifth starter. But since the Braves can go the first couple weeks with just four starting pitchers, Wilson will need to work his way back from a minor league camp assignment to start the year. Still, he’s expected to be a factor on the mound for the Braves this season.

Of course, when it comes to comebacks, the 2020 National League Comeback Player of the Year deserves a mention. UNC’s Daniel Bard returned to the mound as a Rockies reliever following seven years since his last MLB appearance. He’s expected to start this year as Colorado’s closer.

Fellow former Tar Heel Matt Harvey, who has bounced around since starting his career as a budding star with the Mets, has won a spot in the Orioles’ rotation.

Other North Carolina products to watch this season:

Greg Holland (Marion and Western Carolina) opens the year as the Royals’ closer.

After winning his first World Series ring with the Dodgers, Corey Seager (Kannapolis) has hit eight spring home runs, most by a Dodger since 2004.

Wil Myers (Thomasville and Durham Bulls) led the Padres in home runs this spring.

Emilio Pagan (Belmont Abbey, Gardner-Webb and Durham Bulls) will play a major role in the Padres’ bullpen and may end up being the full-time closer.

Colin Moran (UNC) is moving from third base to first for the Pirates this year.

Ryan Thompson (Campbell) will play a role in the Rays’ bullpen as the team’s ground-ball specialist.

Trent Thornton (Charlotte, UNC) will be a long reliever for the Blue Jays.