CINCINNATI – Josh Hamilton is back where it all started.
The outfielder got a standing ovation for his pinch-hit appearance at Great American Ball Park on opening day 2007, a moment that completed his comeback from years of drug abuse. He'll get another grand introduction on Monday when his new team, the Los Angeles Angels, opens against the Reds.
It'll feel a bit like home.
"I mean, that's where I started to learn how to be a professional," Hamilton said. "That's where my wife learned how to deal with fans, media, raising kids and baseball culture.
"So there will always be a special feeling. Obviously there's a lot of memories there, just because of all my 'firsts' happened there — my first at-bat, hit, RBI, home run, throwing somebody out."
Having Hamilton dig into the batter's box will be one of the few familiar things about a most unusual opener. For the first time in major league history, the season is starting with an interleague game.
"It is very strange," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "This usually doesn't happen until June or July. This adds even more importance to your interleague record. I point out to my team every year that it is at least 10 percent of your schedule. It's huge. Those games could mean the difference between going to the playoffs or not."
Temperatures in the 40s with occasional rain were predicted. Jered Weaver (20-5) makes his fourth straight opening day start for the Angels against Johnny Cueto (19-9), who is fully recovered from an injury to his side during the playoffs last season.
The two teams have taken much different paths in trying to get to the playoffs.
The Reds kept their roster virtually intact from the team that won 97 games and the NL Central last season. After winning the first two playoff games in San Francisco, the Reds dropped the next three at home to the eventual World Series champions.
They've brought back the starting rotation and the back of the bullpen. Only two changes in the starting lineup: Shin-Soo Choo is playing center and batting leadoff, while Todd Frazier takes over full-time at third base, where he filled in a lot as a rookie.
"We look really great on paper," reliever Sam LeCure said. "We have a lot of guys coming back from last year. The acquisitions that we made — bringing (reliever Jonathan) Broxton back and bringing in Choo — we think they are going to pay huge dividends."
For Cincinnati, it's not about the first cold game in April but those chilly ones in late October. They haven't won a playoff series since 1995.
"I want to get to the next round of the playoffs," second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "I want to start there."
The Angels just want to get there. Unlike the Reds, they decided to spend a lot of money and make significant changes. The biggest was signing Hamilton for $125 million, adding to an already formidable lineup that includes Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout, the AL Rookie of the Year.
The Angels haven't been to the playoffs for the last three years, their longest drought since Mike Scioscia took over as manager in 2000.
It would be helpful if Pujols could have a better April this time around. He opened last season with the longest home run drought of his career, going 33 games and 139 at-bats before connecting. In the offseason, he had surgery on his right knee. He hit three homers in the spring but was bothered by a sore left foot, which has had plantar fasciitis during his career.
"Albert's ability to play first base (every day) is purely contingent on how his foot feels," Scioscia said. "His knee feels great right now, so it's not going to be an issue. He's a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman and he'll have enough mobility to be a defensive presence there. We're confident of that."
NOTES: The Reds made their final bullpen moves on Sunday, sending right-handed relievers Logan Ondrusek and Jose Arredondo to the minors. They chose to keep left-hander Manny Parra and right-hander Alfredo Simon. INF Cesar Izturis made the team as a backup. ... It'll be the third time in the last five years that the Reds had below-average temperatures for their opener. It was 37 degrees and rainy in 2009, 41 degrees and cloudy in 2011. ... If Weaver gets a plate appearance, he will be the first AL starter to bat on opening day since Pat Dobson (Orioles) and Mel Stottlemyre (Yankees) on April 16, 1972. ... Angels pitchers are 1 for 27 on opening day, with Andy Messersmith's single in 1970 accounting for the only hit.
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