The Texas Rangers' quest for a third straight American League title begins today when they welcome the Chicago White Sox to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Prior to those back-to-back pennants, the Rangers had not made the playoffs since 1999, and they had not won a postseason series in the team's 50-year history. Still, given the way the 2011 season ended, the 2012 campaign could not start soon enough for the reigning league champs.
"It's time to close the book on last season," manager Ron Washington said during his first team meeting this spring.
Of course, that is easier said than done for a squad that saw its season come to a screeching halt upon the final out in Game 7 of the World Series. On two occasions in Game 6, the Rangers found themselves within one out of winning it all. However, on both occasions, the resilient St. Louis Cardinals battled back from the abyss, erasing a two-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth inning and then doing it again in the bottom of the 10th. St. Louis would go on to complete its improbable run by taking Game 7, forcing the Rangers to put the champagne bottles away and somehow try and shift their focus to 2012.
"I think it took a couple of weeks to let everything process and just get over it," designated hitter Michael Young said at the outset of spring training. "The last thing you want to do is sit there and say, 'I'm good, I'm good, I'm good' and never really get over it. You've got to give yourself some time.
"We're not going to have a hangover. We're still hungry. More than that we're confident we can play baseball. We'll show up every day in 2012 and take each day for what it offers and try to be the best we can that day. Everything else will take care of itself. We're not thinking about what happened in 2010 and 2011."
Despite how things ended last year, there are plenty of reasons for optimism as Texas enters the 2012 season looking primed for another deep playoff run. Look no further than the offense, which has established itself as one of the top run-producing lineups in baseball, and remains largely intact. The same cast of characters returns after ranking in the top-five in the majors last season in team batting average (1st, .283), slugging percentage (2nd, .460), runs (3rd, 855), and on-base percentage (5th, .340).
While the offense is in good shape, the team's most notable offseason departure was no doubt that of left-hander C.J. Wilson, who bolted to Anaheim along with his 16 victories and 223 innings produced in 2011. Replacing the southpaw will be among the Rangers' chief objectives as they enter a new season looking to finish what they started.
Getting the call this afternoon will be righty Colby Lewis, who has been the team's best pitcher in the postseason the past two seasons. Lewis was pretty good in the regular season a year ago too, posting a 14-10 mark to go along with a 4.40 ERA. However, he did allow an AL-high 35 home runs.
"Being the Opening Day pitcher means I get to go out there for 30-35 starts," Lewis said. "Being the top of the rotation guy doesn't matter. It's all about competing and giving your team a chance to win. I just do what it takes to keep my team in the game. If I do that, I will pitch a lot of innings this year and help my team win a lot of games. I'm really not into titles."
The White Sox, meanwhile, head into the season with a new manager after Ozzie Guillen asked out of the final year of his contract in order to manage the Miami Marlins. In his place steps Robin Ventura, a former perennial Gold Glover who spent the better part of a decade with the organization as a player from 1989-98. As far as coaching, however, this marks Ventura's first stop.
Among his most pressing tasks will be to try and replace the team's former ace pitcher, who was not re-signed in part due to the exorbitant sums of money already committed to a small handful of players on the roster.
Mark Buehrle followed Guillen to Miami after headlining Chicago's rotation for the last 10 seasons. The team also parted ways with veterans Omar Vizquel and Juan Pierre, in addition to trading oft-injured outfielder Carlos Quentin to San Diego for pitching prospects Simon Castro and Pedro Hernandez.
So without Buehrle starting on Opening Day, that job now falls to another lefty John Danks, who is coming off his worst season (8-12, 4.33 ERA) since breaking into the majors in 2007.
Despite his poor season, which began with him losing his first eight decisions, the White Sox gave him a long-term commitment, signing him to a five-year extension.
"Yeah, I didn't take that for granted. I noticed they did it coming off of a bad year," Danks said. "It wasn't like I won 17 last year. I won eight games. I was the worst pitcher in baseball for the first two months, so you don't take that lightly.
"Knowing I can survive that and that these guys still have my back and believe in me, it's huge. I would like to make them look good and go out there and earn it."
The team is also hoping for a bounce back season from slugger Adam Dunn, who had a disastrous first year in the Windy City. Dunn finished the year hitting .159 and set the club record for most strikeouts in a season (177) despite reduced playing time as the year progressed. Not only was it by far the worst season of Dunn's career, but had he logged enough at-bats to qualify, it would have also been the worst offensive season by anyone in the majors.