American League Cy Young Award winner David Price gets his season started on Tuesday when the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles begin a three-game set at Tropicana Field.
Price was sensational for Tampa Bay a year ago, going 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA, and 205 strikeouts and 173 hits allowed in 211 innings. He may need to throw even more innings this season, as the Rays enter the year without workhorse innings eater James Shields, who was dealt this offseason to Kansas City.
History could be on Price's side in this one, as only three times since 2000 has a reigning Cy Young Award winner lost on Opening Day the year after winning the honor (Cliff Lee, 2009; Roy Halladay, '04; Randy Johnson, '03). Price took the loss in his previous Game 1 start, also against the Orioles.
"(Being the Opening Day starter) is what you want to be," Price said recently. "I don't only want to be the best on a staff; I want to be the best in baseball. That's what I strive to be, year in and year out."
Joe Maddon's club may have to rely heavily on his pitching staff following the offseason departure of outfielder B.J. Upton. Evan Longoria, though, continues to lead the offense and at some point should be joined by outfield prospect Wil Myers, who was the centerpiece in the Shields deal.
Tampa missed out on the postseason a year ago, despite posting a 90-72 record.
"Our goal is not to be watching everybody else play at the end of the year," Maddon said.
Baltimore, meanwhile, enters the year with enormous expectations following a surprise season that saw it go 93-69 and end a 15-year postseason drought.
Now the Orioles are out to prove that the 24-game turnaround last season wasn't just a fluke.
"People that play the game know that 'they say' is the biggest liar," O's manager Buck Showalter said. "I know what they say about us. We're supposed to be in last place. That's all right. Our guys, they're used to that environment."
Baltimore finished the season with a stunning 29-9 record in one-run games. Even more remarkably, the O's rattled off 16 straight wins in extra innings. No other team finished with more than 13 extra inning wins in 2012.
The bullpen may not deserve all of the credit for Baltimore's success in 2012 but it definitely deserves some of it. Baltimore's relievers combined for a 3.00 ERA in 545 1/3 innings last season, fifth-best in the majors and the second-lowest bullpen ERA in the American League (Tampa Bay led the AL at 2.88). Jim Johnson enjoyed a breakout season in his first year as the full- time closer, leading the major leagues with 51 saves in 54 chances.
Baltimore, though, wasn't among the league leaders in batting average (.247) but it made up for it by smashing 214 home runs (second in MLB) for an average of one homer every 26 at bats. Five Orioles (Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy and Mark Reynolds) blasted 20 or more round-trippers last season, the first time that's happened since 2008.
Unfortunately, after beating Texas in the one-game wild card playoff, Baltimore's bats fell silent as the team batted a mere .195 and bowed out to New York in a thrilling five game ALDS.
Jason Hammel gets the call for the O's on Tuesday. Hammel was one of the best pitchers in baseball through the first half of last season, as he was 8-2 at one point with a 2.61 ERA.
However, he was bothered by a knee injury after that and pitched sparingly in the second half, losing his final four decisions, while seeing his ERA balloon up to 3.43.
Baltimnore was 10-8 against the Rays last season.