Monday, April 1, 2013

What to watch for on Opening Day

Two words: Opening Day.
That pretty much says it all, doesn't it? It's what we've been waiting for since Giants closer Sergio Romo froze Tigers Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera for a World Series-ending strikeout on Oct. 28, capping off a San Francisco sweep.
It's what we've been waiting for throughout a longer-than-usual Spring Training that included an undefeated run through the World Baseball Classic by the Dominican Republic and eventful Major League camps for 30 teams with 30 designs on celebrating the way Romo and his brethren by the Bay did last fall.
And now it's here not only on Monday, but it was in full swing Sunday and will carry into Tuesday. The action got under way on Sunday night when the Astros made their American League debut a winning one, beating the Texas Rangers, 8-2, at Minute Maid Park. It continues on Monday with 12 matchups and goes into Tuesday, when six more teams lift the lid on their 2013 campaigns.
All over the great ballparks of the American and National Leagues, we'll witness pregame pageantry as another glorious season gets under way, and while Game No. 1 of 162 might not be the most important in the mathematical sense of things, it's a tone-setter, and if nothing else, it reminds us of what we've been missing in the cold months known as the offseason.
Here are just a few of the many highlights to look out for as the 2013 season officially begins:
Intrigue at Chavez Ravine: Armed with a huge new contract for their heart-and-soul catcher, Bruce Bochy's Giants begin the defense of their second World Series title in the past three years. And the Giants don't look much different from how they ended up last year. They retained the majority of their roster and will field pretty much the same team, with ace Matt Cain on the mound and Buster Posey behind the plate.
They're visiting the Dodgers, who have the highest payroll in the history of the game after a major overhaul that has seen them add All-Star-caliber talent to almost every position. The pressure is on skipper Don Mattingly and starter Clayton Kershaw, who won the 2011 NL Cy Young Award and would love to beat Cain right away for a team that hopes to unseat San Francisco in the NL West.
No limits for the Nats: It isn't surprising to see Stephen Strasburg taking the mound on Opening Day, and maybe there's a hint of symbolism there. Sure, he's the unquestioned ace of the Washington Nationals, who finished last year with the best record in the Major Leagues, but he's also the guy who got shut down before the postseason even started because of concerns about his future after Tommy John surgery kept him out for most of 2011.
Now he's back, and so are the potent Nationals, who feature a terrific pitching staff behind Strasburg and a lineup with one of the most exciting young players in baseball in 2012 NL Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper. They get '13 started against the Marlins at home on Monday at 1:05 p.m. ET.
Red vs. Reds: With the Astros' move to the AL, one thing we'll see a lot more of this year is Interleague Play strewn throughout the entirety of the 162-game schedule. And one of the most interesting matchups as the season begins is the Angels' opening series against the Reds at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. The Angels will be flaunting a new lineup featuring their latest high-ticket free-agent signing, outfielder Josh Hamilton, who resurrected his baseball career in 2007 as a member of the Reds after battling drug addiction. It'll be a sort of homecoming for Hamilton, but a real one for the Reds, who won the NL Central last year but bowed out to the Giants in five games in the Division Series and are motivated to do even more damage in October this time around.
Dusty Baker's team will have its 19-game winner of a year ago, Johnny Cueto, on the mound. The Angels will counter with their ace, Jered Weaver, but one player everyone in baseball will be watching will be the first man to stride up to the plate in this opener: Angels leadoff hitter Mike Trout, the phenom AL Rookie of the Year from 2012 who almost took MVP honors after arguably the greatest first season in baseball history.
Justin time: It was perfect timing to have Tigers ace and perennial Cy Young contender Justin Verlander sign a monster contract extension mere days before the defending AL champions' opener, which takes place Monday afternoon against the Twins at Target Field in Minneapolis. Verlander was last seen losing Game 1 of the World Series, following a dominant October that had his Tigers as Fall Classic favorites.
Now the guy's got big-time financial security in his back pocket to go along with that 100-mph fastball, and he's got his buddy Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the batting order, along with Jim Leyland on the bench and an excellent starting rotation that has made his club a prohibitive choice to rule the AL Central once again.
These teams are underdogs? When was the last time we saw a Red Sox vs. Yankees Opening Day game at Yankee Stadium, with Jon Lester pitching against CC Sabathia, and didn't necessarily think either team was favored to even win the division? It speaks to many things, including injuries that have beset Boston and New York, and to the improving AL East and parity throughout baseball.
But don't think for a second that either team can't contend. The Yankees still have pitching, and the Red Sox made sneaky roster moves throughout the winter that very well might pay off. The classic rivalry renews Monday at 1:05 p.m. ET in the Bronx.
Brotherly love: The Phillies won't be at home for their opener Monday, but they'll be visiting a team with postseason hopes and family ties. Brothers B.J. and Justin Upton both ended up in Atlanta in the offseason, and they make up a potent outfield along with Jason Heyward. That has the Braves as many prognosticators' pick in the NL East.
But the Phillies still have the tremendous triumvirate of pitchers Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, and they're looking to get back to their usual prominence after not making the postseason in 2012. It'll start with Hamels vs. veteran Braves starter Tim Hudson at 7:10 p.m. ET at Turner Field.
A Royal plan: Kansas City made a huge statement in the offseason with a complete starting rotation overhaul that brought in James Shields, Ervin Santana and Wade Davis, and brought back Jeremy Guthrie. Shields and Davis, of course, came to the Royals in a trade with Tampa Bay for Kansas City's top prospect, slugger Wil Myers.
Shields will be counted on to do what he does best: pitch well over 200 innings and be the horse, the prime-time performer they call "Big Game James." Against the improving White Sox and their young ace, left-hander Chris Sale, Shields will be called upon to do it right away as his team's season kicks off at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago at 4:10 p.m. ET.
Elsewhere around baseball, we've got the AL West champion Oakland A's trying to prove last year wasn't a fluke, starting it off against the refurbished Mariners and their newly extended ace, Felix Hernandez.
We've got the Cardinals visiting Arizona on Monday and leading off with the recipient of another huge contract extension, franchise right-hander Adam Wainwright, who will pitch against a D-backs club that is looking to sneak under the radar in the NL West with manager Kirk Gibson.
We've got East intrigue galore Tuesday, when the Baltimore Orioles face the Rays in a battle of serious AL contenders. The Orioles will be trying to build off a stunning 94-win season under Buck Showalter, while the Rays will continue to ride their stellar young pitching to a season of contention that is now expected from Joe Maddon's group.
And as if it were planned this way, with the most drama being saved for the last of the teams' official openers, we'll finally see the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays, who have been picked by many to jump up and win the AL East on the strength of the amazing roster renovation they underwent in a wild winter by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, at 7:07 p.m. ET on Tuesday at Rogers Centre in Canada.
The Jays begin the year against a Cleveland Indians club that looks quite different, itself, with new manager Terry Francona, plus outfield additions Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher, among others. Toronto added star power with Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera, Emilio Bonifacio, and perhaps most significantly, last year's NL Cy Young Award winner, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
It'll be Dickey who throws the first pitch for the Jays in 2013, the last pitch in a series of Opening Day starts that we've all been anticipating for a long time.
"It's going to be really loud," Dickey said, "and it should be a fantastic night for all of us."

Projected Opening Day Lineups in the National League

Arizona Diamondbacks
1. CF: Gerardo Parra
2. 3B: Martin Prado
3. 2B: Aaron Hill
4. C: Miguel Montero
5. LF: Jason Kubel
6. 1B: Paul Goldschmidt
7. RF: A.J. Pollock
8. SS: Cliff Pennington
9. SP: Ian Kennedy
Atlanta Braves
1. SS: Andrelton Simmons
2. RF: Jason Heyward
3. LF: Justin Upton
4. 1B: Freddie Freeman
5. CF: B.J. Upton
6. 2B: Dan Uggla
7. 3B: Juan Francisco
8. C: Gerald Laird
9. SP: Tim Hudson
Chicago Cubs
1. CF: David DeJesus
2. SS: Starlin Castro
3. 1B: Anthony Rizzo
4. LF: Alfonso Soriano
5. RF: Nate Schierholtz
6. C: Welington Castillo
7. 3B: Luis Valbuena
8. 2B Brent Lillibridge
9. SP: Jeff Samardzija
Cincinnati Reds
1. CF: Shin-Soo Choo
2. 2B: Brandon Phillips
3. 1B: Joey Votto
4. LF: Ryan Ludwick
5. RF: Jay Bruce
6. 3B: Todd Frazier
7. SS: Zack Cozart
8. C: Ryan Hanigan
9. SP: Johnny Cueto
Colorado Rockies
1. CF: Dexter Fowler
2. 2B: Josh Rutledge
3. LF: Carlos Gonzalez
4. SS: Troy Tulowitzki
5. RF: Michael Cuddyer
6. 1B: Todd Helton
7. C: Wilin Rosario
8. 3B: Chris Nelson
9. SP: Jhoulys Chacin
Los Angeles Dodgers
1. LF: Carl Crawford
2. 2B: Mark Ellis
3. CF: Matt Kemp
4. 1B: Adrian Gonzalez
5. RF: Andre Ethier
6. 3B: Luis Cruz
7. C: A.J. Ellis
8. SS: Justin Sellers
9. SP: Clayton Kershaw
Miami Marlins
1. LF: Juan Pierre
2. 2B: Donovan Solano
3. RF: Giancarlo Stanton
4. 3B: Placido Polanco
5. C: Rob Brantly
6. CF: Justin Ruggiano
7. 1B: Casey Kotchman
8. SS: Adeiny Hechavarria
9. SP: Ricky Nolasco
Milwaukee Brewers
1. RF: Norichika Aoki
2. 2B: Rickie Weeks
3. LF: Ryan Braun
4. 3B: Aramis Ramirez
5. C: Jonathan Lucroy
6. 1B: Alex Gonzalez
7. CF: Carlos Gomez
8. SS: Jean Segura
9. SP: Yovani Gallardo
New York Mets
1. CF: Collin Cowgill
2. 2B: Daniel Murphy
3. 3B: David Wright
4. 1B: Ike Davis
5. RF: Marlon Byrd
6. LF: Lucas Duda
7. C: John Buck
8. SS: Ruben Tejada
9. SP: Jon Niese
Philadelphia Phillies
1. SS: Jimmy Rollins
2. CF: Ben Revere
3. 2B: Chase Utley
4. 1B: Ryan Howard
5. 3B: Michael Young
6. RF: Domonic Brown
7. LF: Laynce Nix
8. C: Erik Kratz
9. SP: Cole Hamels
Pittsburgh Pirates
1. LF: Starling Marte
2. C: Russell Martin
3. CF: Andrew McCutchen
4. 3B: Pedro Alvarez
5. 2B: Neil Walker
6. 1B: Gaby Sanchez
7. RF: Travis Snider
8. SS: Clint Barmes
9. SP: A.J. Burnett
San Diego Padres
1. RF: Chris Denorfia
2. SS: Everth Cabrera
3. 1B: Yonder Alonso
4. LF: Carlos Quentin
5. 2B: Jedd Gyorko
6. C: Nick Hundley
7. CF: Cameron Maybin
8. 3B: Cody Ransom
9. SP: Edinson Volquez
San Francisco Giants
1. CF: Angel Pagan
2. 2B: Marco Scutaro
3. 3B: Pablo Sandoval
4. C: Buster Posey
5. RF: Hunter Pence
6. 1B: Brandon Belt
7. LF: Andres Torres
8. SS: Brandon Crawford
9. SP: Matt Cain
St. Louis Cardinals
1. CF: Jon Jay
2. 3B: Matt Carpenter
3. LF: Matt Holliday
4. 1B: Allen Craig
5. RF: Carlos Beltran
6. C: Yadier Molina
7. 2B: Daniel Descalso
8. SS: Pete Kozma
9. SP: Adam Wainwright
Washington Nationals
1. CF: Denard Span
2. RF: Jayson Werth
3. LF: Bryce Harper
4. 3B: Ryan Zimmerman
5. 1B: Adam LaRoche
6. SS: Ian Desmond
7. 2B: Danny Espinosa
8. C: Wilson Ramos
9. SP: Stephen Strasburg

Projected Opening Day Lineups for the American League

Baltimore Orioles
1. RF: Nick Markakis
2. DH: Nolan Reimold
3. CF: Adam Jones
4. C: Matt Wieters
5. 1B: Chris Davis
6. SS: J.J. Hardy
7. LF: Nate McLouth
8. 3B: Manny Machado
9. 2B: Brian Roberts
SP: Jason Hammel
Boston Red Sox
1. CF: Jacoby Ellsbury
2. RF: Shane Victorino
3. 2B: Dustin Pedroia
4. 1B: Mike Napoli
5. 3B: Will Middlebrooks
6. DH: Jonny Gomes
7. C: Jarrod Saltalamacchia
8. LF: Jackie Bradley
9. SS: Jose Iglesias
SP: Jon Lester
Chicago White Sox
1. CF: Alejandro De Aza
2. 3B: Jeff Keppinger
3. RF: Alex Rios
4. DH: Adam Dunn
5. 1B: Paul Konerko
6. LF: Dayan Viciedo
7. SS: Alexei Ramirez
8. C: Tyler Flowers
9. 2B: Gordon Beckham
SP: Chris Sale
Cleveland Indians
1. CF: Michael Bourn
2. SS: Asdrubal Cabrera
3. 2B: Jason Kipnis
4. 1B: Nick Swisher
5. LF: Michael Brantley
6. C: Carlos Santana
7. DH: Mark Reynolds
8. 3B: Lonnie Chisenhall
9. RF: Drew Stubbs
SP: Justin Masterson
Detroit Tigers
1. CF: Austin Jackson
2. RF: Torii Hunter
3. 3B: Miguel Cabrera
4. 1B: Prince Fielder
5. DH: Victor Martinez
6. LF: Andy Dirks
7. SS: Jhonny Peralta
8. C: Alex Avila
9. 2B: Omar Infante
SP: Justin Verlander
Houston Astros
1. 2B: Jose Altuve
2. 1B: Brett Wallace
3. LF: Chris Carter
4. DH: Carlos Pena
5. CF: Justin Maxwell
6. C: Jason Castro
7. 3B: Matt Dominguez
8. RF: Brandon Barnes
9. SS: Ronny Cedeno
SP: Bud Norris
Kansas City Royals
1. LF: Alex Gordon
2. SS: Alcides Escobar
3. DH: Billy Butler
4. 3B: Mike Moustakas
5. C: Salvador Perez
6. 1B: Eric Hosmer
7. CF: Lorenzo Cain
8. RF: Jeff Francoeur
9. 2B: Chris Getz
SP: James Shields
Los Angeles Angels
1. CF: Mike Trout
2. SS: Erick Aybar
3. 1B: Albert Pujols
4. RF: Josh Hamilton
5. LF: Mark Trumbo
6. 2B: Howard Kendrick
7. 3B: Alberto Callaspo
8. C: Chris Iannetta
9. SP: Jered Weaver
Minnesota Twins
1. CF: Aaron Hicks
2. C: Joe Mauer
3. LF: Josh Willingham
4. 1B: Justin Morneau
5. DH: Ryan Doumit
6. RF: Chris Parmelee
7. 3B: Trevor Plouffe
8. 2B: Brian Dozier
9. SS: Pedro Florimon
SP: Vance Worley
New York Yankees
1. CF: Brett Gardner
2. SS: Eduardo Nunez
3. 2B: Robinson Cano
4. 1B: Kevin Youkilis
5. LF: Vernon Wells
6. DH: Ben Francisco
7. RF: Ichiro Suzuki
8. 3B: Jayson Nix
9. C: Francisco Cervelli
SP: CC Sabathia
Oakland Atletics
1. CF: Coco Crisp
2. SS: Jed Lowrie
3. RF: Josh Reddick
4. LF: Yoenis Cespedes
5. 1B: Brandon Moss
6. DH: Seth Smith
7. 3B: Josh Donaldson
8. C: John Jaso
9. 2B: Eric Sogard
SP: Brett Anderson
Seattle Mariners
1. CF: Franklin Gutierrez
2. RF: Michael Saunders
3. DH Kendrys Morales:
4. LF: Michael Morse
5. 3B: Kyle Seager
6. 1B: Justin Smoak
7. C: Jesus Montero
8. 2B: Dustin Ackley
9. SS: Brendan Ryan
SP: Felix Hernandez
Tampa Bay Rays
1. CF: Desmond Jennings
2. LF: Matt Joyce
3. 3B: Evan Longoria
4. RF: Ben Zobrist
5. DH: Luke Scott
6. SS: Yunel Escobar
7. 1B: James Loney
8. C: Jose Molina
9. 2B: Kelly Johnson
SP: David Price
Texas Rangers
1. 2B: Ian Kinsler
2. SS: Elvis Andrus
3. DH: Lance Berkman
4. 3B: Adrian Beltre
5. LF: David Murphy
6. RF: Nelson Cruz
7. C: A.J. Pierzynski
8. 1B: Mitch Moreland
9. CF: Leonys Martin
SP: Matt Harrison
Toronto Blue Jays
1. SS: Jose Reyes
2. LF: Melky Cabrera
3. RF: Jose Bautista
4. 1B: Edwin Encarnacion
5. DH: Adam Lind
6. C: J.P. Arencibia
7. CF: Colby Rasmus
8. 2B: Emilio Bonifacio
9. 3B: Maicer Izturis
SP: R.A. Dickey

Cardinals vs Diamondbacks preview for April 1, 2013

If there's one bit of good news for the injury-wracked D-backs and Cardinals, it's this: they open against each other. Misery loves company and all that, but it's still probably not much consolation.
Arizona will begin the season without one, and likely two, of its starting outfielders, a pitcher who ought to be a key cog in its rotation, and perhaps its top utility man. St. Louis will open the season without ... about half its roster, or so it seems. Two teams that expect to define themselves by their mental toughness and ability to overcome adversity will have those traits tested right off the bat.
"Now is an opportunity for multiple guys to step in and take advantage," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "There are some groups that are looking for that excuse, that this or that didn't go well, woe is me. That's usually the foundation for failure, and I've never seen even a little bit of that from this club. As a matter of fact, it can be something that you can rally around."
They'll need to do just that, and quickly. The Cardinals open the season with third baseman David Freese and closer Jason Motte on the disabled list. Carlos Beltran is battling a minor injury. And, of course, Rafael Furcal and Chris Carpenter are out for the year. It's an All-Star-caliber MASH unit.
The D-backs, meanwhile, start the year with Adam Eaton on the DL for a few weeks, Daniel Hudson out for the first half of the year, and Cody Ross and Willie Bloomquist both iffy. It's a shorter list of wounded, but still a significant chunk of a roster that was heavily reconfigured over the winter.
Besides, Arizona has less wiggle room to start with. The Cardinals were a playoff team for the second year in a row last season, going 88-74. The D-backs entered the season with high expectations but finished with a disappointing .500 record and a third-place showing in the National League West. They're looking to get off to a fast start, since it will be difficult to make up ground in what should be one of baseball's best divisions.
"That's not what I expect," manager Kirk Gibson said of the frustrations of 2012. "It's not what you hope for your team. I've certainly evaluated myself and I do have to do things better and do my part, but so does everyone else. It's a collective effort. It's us. If we can have that chemistry and make sure our agendas are all the same, we create us and have the chemistry and the chance to be a championship team."
There is some good news: each team will start the season with a right-hander who has recently contended for a Cy Young Award. Whatever both teams may be missing, at least each has its No. 1 pitcher. That's a good way to start, and a good way to overcome shortcomings elsewhere.
Ian Kennedy, 28, took a step back in 2012 but was still effective after a superb 2011 for Arizona. Adam Wainwright, 31, was solid in his return from Tommy John surgery last year for St. Louis but is expecting more from himself in '13. Both will need to have big years for their teams to get where they're hoping to go.
Both rotations could be very good. Both could have struggles. They'll need their aces to be tone-setters from Day 1.
"It's always won with pitching," said Arizona general manager Kevin Towers. "The Giants had a nice offensive club last year, but they won with their pitching. If their 'pen wouldn't have performed like it did with their back to the wall late in postseason last year, they might not have ended up with the World Series trophy."
The World Series, of course, is still a long way away. You have to get to October first, and the road to the postseason starts on Monday. The D-backs are looking to get back to being a playoff team. The Cardinals are looking to keep that designation. It's one of the opening week's most interesting matchups, and it's just about here.
"I think I'm most excited about a group of guys who have been to a World Series and [NL Championship Series] back-to-back," Wainwright said. "Having that experience has allowed the young guys to further establish their approach at the plate and further figure out who they are as different players and pitchers. Each year we try to get better and better, and the experience behind that helps, too."
Cardinals: New double-play combo
Change has long been the name of the game in the Cardinals' middle infield, but even by St. Louis' usual standards, this is quite a drastic change. Youngsters Pete Kozma and Matt Carpenter will serve as the team's primary double-play tandem. Or at least, they will once Freese is back in the lineup -- in the interim, Carpenter will likely play a lot of third base.
Kozma, 24, has a grand total of 89 regular-season big league at-bats. Carpenter, 27, was a key contributor on offense last year but has made all of two Major League starts at second base. But there's a pretty good chance that for much of the year, they'll be the starting shortstop and second baseman, respectively. Kozma steps in for the injured Furcal, while Carpenter brings a potent bat to a position where the Cards have rarely had a defined starter for very long.
For the times when Carpenter plays third, Daniel Descalso will probably man second base. Ryan Jackson could also get some looks in the middle infield. Either way, it's a new look and arguably a risky setup for a contender.
D-backs: Scrambling in the outfield
A team that entered the offseason with too many outfielders suddenly has too few. The D-backs traded Justin Upton and Chris Young over the winter, in part because of a logjam in the outfield. Now there's a shortage of healthy bodies. Top prospect Eaton, expected to be Arizona's center fielder, will start the season on the disabled list. Ross may also start out on the shelf due to a calf injury.
That will leave Gibson scrambling to assemble a starting outfield. Gerado Parra, fourth outfielder extraordinaire, will likely serve as the primary center fielder while Ross and Eaton are unavailable. Jason Kubel will man left, as usual. And in right, it could be youngster A.J. Pollock, who spent last year at Triple-A Reno.
Another possibility is that Martin Prado could see some time in the outfield, a place where he's played quite a bit. That could bump Eric Chavez or Willie Bloomquist (if healthy) into some additional time at third base.
Worth noting: In 2001, the D-backs played the Cardinals for their home opener, and St. Louis swept a three-game series. The teams met again in the NL Division Series, with Arizona winning in five games and going on to be World Series champion. ... The D-backs have won six straight season openers. ... The last four times that the Cardinals began the season on the road, they won their opening game. ... Yadier Molina is a lifetime .321 hitter at Chase Field. ... The last time someone other than Young started in center field for the D-backs on Opening Day was 2006, when Eric Byrnes got the call, flanked by Shawn Green and Luis Gonzalez.

Phillies vs Braves preview for April 1, 2013

When the Braves were recruiting free agent B.J. Upton over the winter, they knew they had some competition from within their own division for the athletic 28-year-old outfielder.
"He flew in from Philadelphia to meet with us, so that was my first clue. I didn't think he was visiting family members," Braves general manager Frank Wren said with a laugh early in Spring Training. "We looked at B.J. as the best option for us. I don't know if they had him that high on their list ... but we felt if he went there they would have gotten the top guy on our list."
The issue of who will ultimately get the last laugh will begin to be decided Monday at Atlanta's Turner Field when the Phillies meet the Braves on Opening Night. The Braves not only accomplished their goal with a 5-year, $75.25 million contract, but later made a deal with the D-backs to get Justin Upton.
The City of Brotherly Love vs. the Upton brothers, beginning at 7:05 p.m ET. It will be the first of 19 divisional scrums between the two teams, including the final three games back in Atlanta, that could go a long way toward deciding if either team will continuing into the postseason.
After wild cards were added to the playoffs for the first time in 1995, the Braves or Phillies won the division 16 of the first 17 years. Now, both will be hoping to unseat the Nationals. And both will be without their starting catchers when the season opens. The Braves don't expect to have Brian McCann, who is recovering from October shoulder surgery, until the middle of April. Carlos Ruiz of the Phillies was suspended the first 25 games of the season for using a banned stimulant.
"I think the fact that they're one of the big rivals in our division and the history of the last 20 years kind of speaks for itself. With our team and theirs, that's definitely a very good conversation piece. I think people are watching for those match-ups in that series," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel.
But that's just about the extent of their common interest.
"They are going to be a team we battle all year, so to open with them and end with them, it's going to be a pretty significant series to see where we stand and set the tone for where we are in the division," said Phillies Opening Night starter Cole Hamels.
The Phillies are entering the season with the lowest expectations since 2007, which is also the last time they came into Spring Training as anything other than the defending National League East champion. Manuel understands how getting off to a good start could help his team regain its swagger.
"You see when teams come out of the gate good, that can definitely carry over," Manuel said. "That's momentum if you get off good early. Say you sweep the first series and then real quick you get eight or 10 games over .500? Oh, yeah, that can get you going."
The Braves, on the other hand, are a team that's widely viewed as capable of running down the Nationals.
"On paper, I definitely put us just as good [as the Nationals]," backup catcher Gerald Laird said. "They may have some strengths, and we have some strengths on our side. But for the most part, we are two competitively balanced teams. Some people might be picking them to win the division, but Atlanta won 94 games last year, and we've improved. I'm looking forward to it. I think it's going to be anybody's race."
Medlen pointed out that, in the end, it will all be about results.
"I'm a big believer in playing the game," he said. "I don't like talking about potential. It's like talking about prospects. Cool, you throw hard, but you don't know anything about pitching. You just don't know anything until you play the game. I don't like talking about rosters or who looks good on paper. I just like playing the game and trying to beat whoever we are playing."
Hamels takes the same approach.
"When the time comes and we have to step between the lines, we have to play the very best baseball we can for 173 games. We have to look at it that way. If we don't take that sort of approach then we're selling ourselves short. That's the attitude that we're getting. You can feel it in the clubhouse. You can see the work ethic. This is something that we want to do. We want to win 173 games, and that's what we are going to play for," he said.
And it all starts Monday night.
Phillies: Hamels to make first season-opening start
Hamels will be making his first career Opening Night start. He was 1-1 with a 2.77 ERA against Atlanta last season and said there's a sense of urgency to win as the nucleus of the team gets older.
"You don't want to see it, but you understand the game of baseball is a very small window. And you have to do very well for that period of time that you have," Hamels said. "So you have to give it everything you can while you can because it's going to be taken away really fast and you don't want to regret anything.
"I think that's kind of the idea behind what we have to do. We have to perfect everything we can. We have to play as hard as we possibly can. Because it's going to disappear fast and I don't want it to disappear. That's why I still signed [a 6-year, $144 million extension] because I firmly believe we have a great team and we can win the World Series, and the organization wants to see that and the fans want to see that, and I think that's the ingredients that you need to succeed. We have to push the limits."
Braves: Veteran Hudson gets Opening Night nod
Fredi Gonzalez decided to use 37-year-old Tim Hudson in the opener even through right-hander Kris Medlen was 9-0 with an 0.97 ERA in his last 13 starts of 2012.
"Why not give it to the veteran guy?" the manager said.
Hudson will be starting his sixth opener.
"For this club, there are a lot of expectations coming into this year, and it's nice to be able to get started with me on the mound and hopefully getting us in the right column with a W," he said.
Worth noting:
• Atlanta went 12-6 against the Phillies in 2012.
• With Chipper Jones retired, the Braves will start the season with a platoon of Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson at third base.
• The Phillies are encouraged by the way second baseman Chase Utley's knees held up during spring training and a strong Grapefruit League by onetime top prospect Domonic Brown.

Giants vs Dodgers preview for April 1, 2013

The reigning World Series champion Giants face off against their eternal rivals, the Dodgers, and the inflated expectations created by Los Angeles' all-time record payroll. Hollywood's most creative minds couldn't script for nearby Dodger Stadium a more fascinating Opening Series.
As if Matt Cain, in the afterglow of a perfect season complete with a perfect game and a World Series clincher, confronting Clayton Kershaw, arguably the game's best young pitcher, isn't enough opening drama on Monday afternoon, there's a dash of revenge on the menu. It was the Giants, gearing up for their magical postseason run, who eliminated the Dodgers from National League Wild Card contention in the final series by dropping them in the penultimate game of the 2012 season in L.A.
"You've got to beat the best to be the best," Magic Johnson, celebrated front man of the Dodgers' Guggenheim Partners ownership group, said in anticipation of baseball's version of "Showtime" in Chavez Ravine. "I believe both teams can make each other better.
"That last week of the season helped the Giants win it all. They got momentum. They had something to play for; they were hitting on all cylinders, because they had to beat us. With them being in our division, it's going to be a dogfight."
Since they expanded the sport's horizons with their move to the West Coast in 1958, the Dodgers and Giants have gone after each other with a vengeance. From Sandy Koufax and Willie Mays to Buster Posey and Matt Kemp, they've battled for bragging rights in the NL and in the Golden State.
Before manager Bruce Bochy and Co. put everything together with their 2010 World Series championship run, the Dodgers had been preeminent since moving to California, with five World Series titles, nine pennants and 17 postseason appearances. The Giants, in San Francisco, waited more than a half-century for their first Fall Classic title. They own five pennants and 10 postseason entries since moving to the West Coast.
But this is a new era, and the Giants are the big dogs now. They have everything the Dodgers want: championships, continuity, cohesion and chemistry. And crucially, confidence -- deep, justified faith in their ability to make amazing things happen under the most extreme pressure conditions.
"It's something that happens over time," Bochy said. "It's like a player whose success usually feeds off his own success. Teams, I believe, are the same. They figure out a way to win, and it's contagious. You know how to win and how to deal with other things. When you're going through a tough time, a stretch all teams are going to have, you don't overreact.
"These guys handled it well last year when [Melky] Cabrera went down [with a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug use] and Pablo [Sandoval] was injured. They showed how confident they were in each other. You don't get lucky and do what we did two of the last three years. It takes talent and commitment."
In the postseason, down 2-0 to the Reds in the NL Division Series and 3-1 to the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series, the Giant won an unprecedented six postseason elimination games. Then they swept the Tigers in the World Series, using their familiar formula of pitching, defense and clutch hitting.
Center fielder Angel Pagan and second baseman Marco Scutaro, free agents after playing vital roles in the title run, kept intact the chemistry at the top of the order. Posey is healthy and coming off an NL MVP season behind the plate with occasional appearances at first base, where Brandon Belt is showed signs of emerging as a force. The condition of Sandoval, the World Series hero with his three homers in Game 1, is the question mark. He has a nerve condition in the elbow of his throwing arm.
The Dodgers in some quarters are favored to claim the NL West after pushing their payroll over $200 million with a series of expensive, high-profile additions starting last July with the acquisition of shortstop Hanley Ramirez from the Marlins. In late August, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto were acquired from Boston. The winter brought high-priced starters Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu into the fold.
"We don't get caught up in what other teams do and what people think," Bochy said in response to a question about the Dodgers. "We focus on ourselves and what we need to do to win."
Greinke and Ryu fortify a deep rotation fronted by Kershaw, the 2011 NL Cy Young Award winner. The bullpen, featuring Brandon League and Kenley Jansen, also is deep and talented.
The primary question marks surround an offense that sputtered even after blockbuster deals landed Ramirez and Gonzalez. Matt Kemp, the superstar center fielder, was hindered by a shoulder injury requiring offseason surgery. Crawford was nowhere to be seen.
At 31, coming off Tommy John elbow surgery, Crawford intends to re-ignite his career at the top of the order and perform at the elite level he maintained with the Rays for nine seasons before signing a free-agent deal with Boston after the 2010 season.
"I'm hungry," said Crawford, a four-time All-Star who led the American League in triples and steals four times. "I can use all my tools again -- running, being aggressive, getting back to my game. I'm getting a fresh start, a chance to clear my mind after the last two years."
Ramirez, who required surgery to repair his right thumb after tearing a tendon diving for a ground ball for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, is expected to miss at least the first six weeks of the season.
"This is where being an experienced team kicks in," Gonzalez said. "Punto, Jerry Hairston, Juan Uribe, these guys have won World Series and had key roles as platoon guys. They've had to step in and step up to do a job, and they're all proven capable."
Giants: Keeping chemistry intact
Don't mess with success.
The Giants clearly took that stance over the winter when they elected to bring back Pagan and Scutaro. The veterans at the top of the order set the table -- and cleared it now and then -- as the team rolled through August and September, turning a close NL West race into a runaway.
"We like our chances," Brandon Crawford, the Giants' young, gifted shortstop, said. "We've got our guys back. It's pretty much the same team we had last year. What we accomplished last year is our goal this year."
Crawford values Pagan's multiple talents and is happy to be reunited with Scutaro, who signed a three-year, $20 million deal at age 37. Pagan, 31, agreed to a four-year, $40 million contract.
"Marco brought veteran leadership up the middle," said Crawford, who smoothed over some rough edges and played brilliantly after being united with Scutaro. "He stabilized our infield and was great with the bat. He's a smart, veteran guy who has a lot of respect with his teammates."
Scutaro, a career .276 hitter with six teams, batted .362 for the Giants after arriving in a deal with the Rockies. Overall, he had a career year, hitting .306 with 87 runs scored and 74 RBIs in 620 at-bats. Pagan batted .288 with 95 runs scored and a league-leading 15 triples in 605 at-bats.
Dodgers: Chemistry coming together
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly understands the expectations generated by the collection of All-Star-caliber players. The trouble last summer was that they were not playing an All-Star Game. They were in a pennant race, and the Dodgers couldn't find the chemistry that propelled the Giants, who acquired Scutaro and right fielder Hunter Pence to solidify their lineup and defense.
"We kind of threw it together," Mattingly said. "Everybody in [the clubhouse] kind of felt the chemistry thing. There was never really a problem with it. It's having guys on the same page. Coming in during the heat of a pennant race, trying to win [a Wild Card] at the end of the year, they didn't really know us. Now there's a connection between guys. More than anything, it's time together."
Luis Cruz, a career Minor Leaguer who became a godsend for the 2012 Dodgers, will be part of the equation in replacing Ramirez at shortstop and in the lineup.
"This year's different," Cruz said. "I think the guys are very happy with how everybody is coming together. We're all hungry to go to the playoffs and World Series."
Kemp, looking for his power stroke to resurface after shoulder surgery, agreed.
"That's what Spring Training is all about," Kemp, a vocal leader, said. "We all have great relationships in here. Last year, the second half was different, it was like we had a brand-new team."
Worth noting:
• Cain was 1-0 with a 2.73 ERA in four starts against the Dodgers last season, not facing Kershaw head to head. For his career, Cain is 4-8 with a 3.41 ERA in 23 games against L.A.
• Kershaw, getting up for his team's big rival, has been dominant against the Giants. He was 2-3 last year in five games, through no fault of his own. His ERA was 1.62 and he held Giants hitters to a .197 batting average. In 17 career outings against San Francisco, Kershaw is 8-4 with a remarkable 1.37 ERA in 118 innings. His 0.88 WHIP vs. the Giants is his best against any club he's faced more than twice.
• By taking one of the games at Dodger Stadium in the season's finale series -- knocking the Dodgers out of Wild Card contention -- enabled the Giants to seize the season series 10-8.

Rockies vs Brewers preview for April 1, 2013

The Brewers and Rockies both went into last season expecting to make a pitch for division titles.
Their hopes were disarmed early.
Expectations for both teams were built around their rotations.
The rotations for both teams unraveled early.
Both teams are looking for a reversal of fortunes in 2013.
And it all starts on Monday. The Brewers host the Rockies on Opening Day at Miller Park at 1:10 p.m. CT.
With 162 games to play, there is no way to proclaim that Opening Day is a must-win, but for two teams looking to regain confidence in their rotations, the efforts of Monday's starting pitchers -- Yovani Gallardo for the Brewers and Jhoulys Chacin for the Rockies -- can provide a step in that direction.
"We are not in a position of rebuilding," said Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. "We are in a position where we want to win. In [2011] the rotation was certainly why we won [the National League Central]. We only used six starters."
Not last year, when the Brewers were 83-79. They finished 14 games behind NL Central champion Cincinnati, and five back of St. Louis in the battle for the second NL Wild Card spot. The Brewers, however, weren't really a factor in the second half of the season. They were as many as 18 1/2 games out in August.
The Rockies, meanwhile, never made good on the expectations that they could contend in the NL West.
The only month the Rockies even had a winning record was August, when they were 16-13. But they went from 18 games out of first place in the NL West at the end of July to 20 games out at the end of August. They finished 30 games behind NL West champion San Francisco, 12 back of fourth-place San Diego.
Both teams downplay the idea that they were the only two teams in the big leagues last year -- and only the fifth and sixth teams in big league history -- to go a full season without having a pitcher throw a complete game.
What they cannot deny, however, is the impact the struggles of their rotations had on the season. The Rockies ranked last in the Major Leagues in innings pitched by the starting staff (765) and ERA (5.81). The Brewers' rotation was 11th in the NL in innings pitched (941 1/3) and ninth in ERA (3.99).
Gallardo was the one consistent in the Brewers' rotation, a big part of why he was named the team's Opening Day starter for the fourth consecutive season. Not only did he make all 33 of his scheduled starts last year, but he was 16-9 with a 3.66 ERA and the Brewers won 22 of his starts.
Roenicke is counting on the veteran leadership of Gallardo and newly acquired right-hander Kyle Loshe to stabilize an otherwise inexperienced rotation.
"It was pretty easy for me as a manager two years ago," Roenicke said. "Our starters went deep. The bullpen was set up to pitch when we wanted it to pitch. Last year was more of a test."
No team was more tested by its rotation last year than the Rockies. Jeff Francis led the Rockies in starts (24) and innings pitched (113), even though he didn't even join the team until June 9.
Chacin was a part of the season-opening rotation, but he had complained since late in the 2011 season about soreness in the upper part of his right arm. It wasn't until after the first month of last season that a specialist finally discovered a nerve disorder in Chacin's right chest area that was causing the aches in his biceps. He did return in August, providing optimism for 2013 when he went 3-2 with a 2.84 in nine starts.
Now he draws his first Opening Day assignment, hoping to set the tone early for a reversal from 2012.
"I believe the talent is there, I really do," said pitching coach Jim Wright of the rotation. "It's just a matter of putting it all together."
It starts with Chacin on Opening Day.
Rockies: 2013 could be it for Helton
Todd Helton has made no formal announcement, but this is expected to be his final season. Helton will be making his 16th consecutive Opening Day start for the Rockies. The only other player to start an Opening Day at first base for the Rockies was Andres Galarraga, who started the first five Opening Days in franchise history. Helton goes into the season the Rockies' all-time leader in games played (2,123), at-bats (7,565), runs scored (1,360), hits (2,420), doubles (570), total bases (4,124), home runs (354), RBIs (1,345) and walks (1,295).
Brewers: Crew has roster stability
The Brewers have only three potential free agents after this season, and only one, first baseman/right fielder Cory Hart, is a regular. Hart will open the season on the disabled list, recovering from knee surgery. The other two are left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez and utility infielder Alex Gonzalez. They have key players under contract through at least 2015, including Lohse, signed through 2015; Aramis Ramirez, Rickie Weeks and Gallardo, each of whom has a contract with an option for 2015; Carlos Gomez, signed through 2016; catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who has an option for 2017, and left fielder Ryan Braun, whose contract runs through 2020 with an option for 2021. Among players on one-year contracts, John Axford won't be eligible for free agency until after 2016, Chris Narveson until after 2015, and Marco Estrada until after 2014.
Worth noting
• Troy Tulowitzki and Braun have played against each other since college, when Braun attended the University of Miami and Tulowitzki attended Long Beach State. They were both first-round picks in 2005, Braun going to Milwaukee with the fifth selection and Tulowitzki to Colorado two selections later. And Braun edged Tulowitzki by only two points for the 2007 NL Rookie of the Year Award.
• This is the second time the Rockies have opened a season at Miller Park. The Rockies beat the Brewers, 5-3, in 2010. The Rockies are 11-9 all-time on Opening Day, 6-6 when they open on the road. The Brewers are 23-20 with one tie on Opening Day, including 2-2 at Miller Park.
• The Brewers have lost the season opener the last four years -- 10-6 at San Francisco in 2009, 5-3 to the Rockies in '10, 7-6 at Cincinnati in '11, and 11-5 to St. Louis at Miller Park last year.

Cubs vs Pirates preview for April 1, 2013

A new season is upon us.
And for the Cubs and Pirates, that once again means new hope for two organizations and fan bases in need of positive years.
In Pittsburgh, where the two teams open the 2013 season at 1:35 p.m. ET on Monday at PNC Park, the Pirates are again in search for the winning season that has eluded them for two decades.
For Chicago, now in the second year under the guidance of president of baseball operations Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager Dale Sveum, it means staying the course in a long-term rebuilding plan that started at the low of 101 losses in 2012.
But while the future is always in mind for Epstein and Co., the goal at the outset of 2013 remains the same for the Cubs as it does the game's other 29 teams: make the postseason.
"Any time you don't compete for the division or one playoff spot, the Wild Card or whatever, it's disappointing," Sveum said. "It doesn't matter if you win 92 and go home or lose 105 -- both teams are going home, whether one won 90 or one lost. It's always disappointing [to not make the postseason] because it's such a long season, 162 games, Spring Training. Anything is disappointing if you don't make the playoffs."
There is reason for optimism in Wrigleyville. The Cubs have a solid infield core of hit machine Starlin Castro at shortstop, a potential star at first base in Anthony Rizzo and a Gold Glove winner in second baseman Darwin Barney. Veteran left fielder Alfonso Soriano is coming off a season in which he drove in a career-high 108 runs and new acquisitions such as Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston look to help an offense that finished last season 14th in the National League in scoring.
A handful of signings bolstered the starting rotation, led by right-hander Edwin Jackson, and Opening Day pitcher Jeff Samardzija is ready to be fully unleashed after an impressive first season as a starter.
"This team has a totally different attitude this year," Samardzija said. "To see our lineup from top to bottom, and guys playing the game the right way and having a team approach, I think it's going to pay off huge for us. You've got guys like [center fielder David] DeJesus and Schierholtz who come out and play the game every day. They don't complain, they work hard and that's what it's all about. Now we need to go out and find ways to win games."
That's also what the Pirates are looking to continue to do. They improved from 57 wins in 2010 to 72 in 2011, then won 79 a year ago. Yet 2012 boasted Pittsburgh's second consecutive second-half swoon, as the Pirates once again finished in fourth place. But, players say, that is in the past.
Optimism abounds, as it should, with one of the game's best in Andrew McCutchen, power at third base in Pedro Alvarez and the steady-when-healthy Neil Walker at second and Opening Day starter A.J. Burnett leading the pitching staff.
"We're not going to answer any more last-year questions," Burnett said. "We have to get over the fact that it happened. This year is about to start."
And here it is.
Cubs: The bench bunch
Quality reserve players are key for any Major League team, but especially those in the Senior Circuit. Sveum is thrilled with the versatility on his bench, which includes Brent Lillibridge, Hairston, Dave Sappelt, Dioner Navarro, and, likely, Steve Clevenger.
"We have guys who don't strike out on the bench, we've got guys who put the ball in play, guys who hit the ball out of the ballpark -- they're two-way players," Sveum said before the club left Mesa, Ariz. "If Clevenger makes the team, you can pinch-hit for Navarro, pinch-hit for [Welington] Castillo. If Castillo is playing, you can use Navarro and Clevenger as pinch-hitters. It's a very versatile bench and for a National League team, it's nice for me to have all that kind of versatility."
• It's a fresh new season, but the Cubs certainly enter 2013 banged up. Right-handers Matt Garza, Scott Baker and Arodys Vizcaino and third baseman Ian Stewart will open the year on the disabled list.
Pirates: Burnett excited for first Opening Day start
Burnett has pitched in many big games in his career, such as the 2009 World Series while with the Yankees. But getting Monday's Opening Day start after his bounce-back 2012 has the righty eager to begin the season, both for himself and his teammates.
"I can't wait. To get to start it off is really exciting," Burnett said. "We're very anxious, have been anxious for a while. It's been a long spring, but there's a bunch of good, positive vibes heading north.
"Now we play games that mean something. It's time to go."
• Infielder Josh Harrison claimed the final bench spot, with the expectation that Brandon Inge (right shoulder blade) will open the season on the DL.
Worth noting
• Samardzija is opening 2013 where his '12 ended. The young right-hander was shut down following his Sept. 8 start in Pittsburgh, but he certainly went out on a high note, striking out nine in a complete-game win. Samardzija also held the Pirates to one hit in eight shutout innings in a July 23 victory at PNC Park.
• Burnett was 2-1 with a 1.40 ERA in three starts against the Cubs last season, including twirling a complete-game one-hitter on July 31.

Padres vs Mets preview for April 1, 2013

As the Mets and Padres prepare to meet on Opening Day, the spotlight will be on the players suiting up and taking the field in New York.
But with thousands of eyes focused on the starting nine Padres skipper Bud Black and Mets manager Terry Collins pencil onto their lineup card, there'll be a handful of conspicuous names missing for each club on Monday.
The Padres will be without standout third baseman Chase Headley (thumb), who broke out last year before finishing fifth in the National League Most Valuable Player Voting, winning a Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards along the way.
Headley is expected to begin the year on the disabled list, and the Padres hope outfielder Carlos Quentin (right knee) won't have to join him. Quentin returned to Cactus League action this week for the first time since March 8.
New York, meanwhile, has an Opening Day starting pitcher not named Johan Santana for just the second time in the last six years. Jon Niese will get that honor, with Santana undergoing season-ending surgery on Tuesday to repair a torn left shoulder capsule. Santana will be joined on the DL by closer Frank Francisco, who had offseason surgery to remove bone chips in his right elbow. Francisco threw to live hitters this week for the first time since the operation.
But with the setbacks, there has been growth in each camp. While David Wright came out of the World Baseball Classic with a strained intercostal muscle on his left side, he is optimistic that he'll be available for Opening Day.
"I've been optimistic about Opening Day since I came back to [Mets Spring Training camp], and talked to the doctors and the trainers about the diagnosis," Wright said after hitting again in a Minor League game Tuesday. "It's another step closer, so I'm still very optimistic."
And in Padres camp, young second baseman Jedd Gyorko has emerged as a contributor. The 24-year-old entered the year as the organization's No. 1 prospect and hit .261 with five doubles, three homers and 10 RBIs through his first 24 spring games. Gyorko is making the transition from third to second base.
"He's handled second base very nicely. He's making all the plays [and] turning a real good double play. Hands are good. Feet are good," Black said. "He's done some nice things. You can tell this guy is a baseball player. He's calm on the field. He's got good instincts. He's comfortable on the diamond and he's comfortable in a big league environment. He's a self-assured, self-confident young guy."
And despite some of the roster holes and lingering injuries to big-name players, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson is hopeful fans will embrace the long-term vision the organization has.
"I kind of have a sense of what they're thinking, and that's motivation in itself," Alderson said of the fans. "My goal ultimately is for a lot of Mets fans to be happy with where we are -- not where we're going, but where we are."
Mets: Niese obvious contingency plan
With Santana unavailable, the easy choice to start Opening Day for the Mets was Niese, who posted career highs in nearly every major statistical category last season. In his first year since signing a long-term extension, Niese struck out 155 hitters with a 3.40 ERA in a career-high 190 1/3 innings.
He'll get a chance to set out for new career bests when he opens the year Monday.
"I'm real excited, obviously, for getting this opportunity," Niese said. "I want to thank the Mets for putting the trust in me to have this opportunity. But I'm going to treat it as any other start."
Through four Grapefruit League outings, Niese had posted a 1.53 ERA and struck out 12 in 17 2/3 innings.
Padres: Another opener for Volquez 
Monday will be Opening Day start No. 2 for Edinson Volquez in a Padres uniform, and his third overall. He also started Opening Day 2011 with the Reds.
"It was a big moment," Volquez said of when Black informed him of the decision. "I'm excited about Opening Day No. 3. It's a big honor. I can't wait for that first game in New York."
Volquez was 11-11 with a 4.14 ERA in 32 starts last season. He also appeared in three games for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. He was the winning pitcher in the semifinal victory over the Kingdom of the Netherlands as the Dominicans went on to win the title.
"I do think it's a feather in the cap -- a special day," Black said of choosing Volquez for Opening Day. "You look for experience and how he is going to handle it. I do like that he pitched the first game for his country.
"He had a solid year last year and we think he can build off that."
Worth noting
• Other Padres players who gained valuable big-game experience in the World Baseball Classic this spring are Chris Denorfia (hit .381 for Italy) and Luke Gregerson (two shutout innings for Team USA).
For the Mets, Wright hit a team-best .438 with 10 RBIs in four games for Team USA before his injury. He was New York's lone representative in the tournament.
• Padres infielder Logan Forsythe is also a candidate to start the season on the DL after he suffered a setback with the plantar fasciitis in his right foot this week. Forsythe was the leading candidate to replace Headley at third. Instead, it appears Cody Ransom will be the Opening Day starter.
• Niese will be the third different starting pitcher in as many years for the Mets, and just the second pitcher other than Johan Santana to start the first game of the regular season since 2007. Santana opened from 2008-10, Mike Pelfrey got the nod in 2011, and Santana pitched Opening Day again last year.
Volquez will be the first Padres pitcher to start consecutive Opening Days since Jake Peavy opened in four straight from 2006-09. Volquez last year took the losing decision in a 5-3 loss to the Dodgers.
• Mets outfielders Marlon Byrd and Colin Cowgill both impressed this spring, each hitting .333 through 18 and 22 games, respectively. LaTroy Hawkins had thrown a scoreless 6 2/3 innings through Wednesday.

Marlins vs Nationals preview for April 1, 2013

Reigning National League Manager of the Year Davey Johnson is 70 years old. It has been announced that this will be his last year as the Nationals manager after 17 big league seasons. In that span, Johnson has posted winning records in all five stops he's made, seven top-three finishes in the Manager of the Year Award voting with two wins, and six postseason appearances, including a pennant winner and a World Series championship with the Mets in 1986.
Mike Redmond is 41 years old. The Marlins are his first shot as a big league manager after prepping with two seasons at Class A Lansing in the Blue Jays' system.
Johnson's Nats had the best record in the Major Leagues last season and appear to have gotten better. Redmond's Fish finished last in the NL East and saw many of their most recognizable players depart, including Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Hanley Ramirez and Emilio Bonifacio.
Two teams that seem to be in very different places -- World Series or bust for Washington, the first steps of a rebuilding process for Miami -- will be in the same place on Monday: At Nationals Park for Opening Day. First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. ET.
Despite their striking contrasts, both teams have something to prove. The Nationals that they can live up to sky-high expectations. The Marlins that they can overachieve until the haul of top prospects they got in return for their stars begin arriving.
It won't be easy for Miami in the opener. They'll be facing Stephen Strasburg, who is one of the reasons the Nationals are so highly regarded. Coming off Tommy John surgery in 2010, Strasburg was on an innings limit and shut down in August last season. That wasn't a popular decision at the time, but now that the ace right-hander is fully healthy and unrestricted, hindsight may well look more favorably on it.
"Great pitcher," Redmond said. "I've been watching video on him since I got hired. It'll be a great challenge for us. They've obviously got a pretty good team. We'll have our work cut out for us. But I'm excited. We'll be ready for it."
The other reason for excitement on the banks of the Anacostia River is Bryce Harper, who was called up in May and went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award. But Johnson stressed that this team has more than two trump cards to play.
"It's not the two players that makes the Nationals a good ballclub. It's the 25. They're just pieces of the cog," Johnson said. They're talented, yes. It's nice to write about No. 1 picks and tremendous upside to them, but when I look at this ballclub, I look at [third baseman Ryan] Zimmerman, I look at the catching, I look at Desi [shortstop Ian Desmond], Espy [second baseman Danny Espinosa], [first baseman Adam] LaRoche. I look at every position and when I see it, we have a little more of an upside even from last year. You're strong by having 25 good players, not just two marquee guys."
Not to mention two starters -- Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann -- who would be possible No. 1s on other clubs, new closer Rafael Soriano at the back of a deep bullpen, new center fielder Denard Span and Jayson Werth in right.
"Harper hit .270 last year. He had a rough stretch. And through all that [shutdown] thing at the end, Stras had some rough starts. I look at them to weather the bad times they went through last year. That's why we're very optimistic about this year," Johnson said.
On the other hand, Redmond knows that youthful energy and enthusiasm can go a long way.
"It's a new start. It's a clean slate," Redmond said. "I think it's going to be an easy sell. The sell is the opportunity. There has been so much change and guys are so young. This reminds me a lot of '98, when I got to the big leagues. It was a great opportunity for us. Sure, there were good days and bad days, but we all went through it together. When we won the World Series in 2003, it was so satisfying with all that we had gone through."
The influx of young talent could begin later this season. Nobody would be surprised to see outfielder Christian Yelich, right-hander Jose Fernandez or outfielder Jake Marisnick playing in the big leagues this season.
"It's definitely a great opportunity for everybody," said outfielder Juan Pierre who, along with third baseman Placido Polanco, gives the Marlins a veteran presence. "I think if everybody pulls together that we can actually have a good team. I know we're going to have to outwork guys. I know the young guys are working, and eager to go."
The Marlins also have 23-year-old Giancarlo Stanton, one of the most feared sluggers in the game. Former Marlins All-Star Mike Lowell, who spent a lot of time around the team this spring, was impressed with what he saw.
"I think there is a lot more talent than people think on this team," Lowell said. "Now, how that translates, how soon? We'll see. I think the stereotype that there is no chance of winning here, I don't think that's the case."
The Nationals will be taking the first step on Monday on a journey they hope will end in the World Series. The Marlins will be taking the first step toward trying to get where the Nationals are now.
Marlins: Nolasco opposes Strasburg on the hill
• Right-hander Ricky Nolasco, 30, has more big league wins (76) than the rest of the Marlins' projected rotation combined (67). So, it's no surprise that he was named the Opening Day starter.
"Well, then, we'd better win," Nolasco told Mike Redmond when the manager gave him the news.
"He's the leader on that staff. I know he's excited about it. He has that experience. He knows how to pitch. He knows the league," Redmond said.
Not only will this be Nolasco's second Opening Day start, it will be the second time he's done it against the Nationals. In '09, he allowed five runs in six innings and got the win in a 12-6 Marlins victory.
Nationals: Ramos, Suzuki form top-notch backstop tandem
• With Wilson Ramos almost fully recovered from May's knee surgery and veteran Kurt Suzuki also on the roster, Johnson has options behind the plate.
"I look at them both pretty much being on equal footing," Johnson said.
It's possible that Ramos and Suzuki will open the season splitting playing time, which is how they were used during the final stages of Spring Training.
"We'll see how it pans out. Last I checked, they're both hitting good and catching every other day. If it ain't broke, why do I gotta fix it?" Johnson said.
Worth noting
• The Marlins and Nationals split 18 head-to-head games last year.
• Soriano is positioned to become the seventh different reliever to lead the team in saves in the last seven years following Tyler Clippard ('12), Drew Storen ('11), Matt Capps ('10), Mike MacDougal ('09), Jon Rauch ('08) and Chad Cordero ('07).