Sunday, April 3, 2016

Here's a best-of-West opener: Felix vs. Hamels

One team wants to show what it's learned from an emotional defeat in the first round of last year's postseason. The other is hungry for a long-awaited return to October baseball and might just have the team to accomplish it.
When the defending American League West champion Rangers host the Mariners on Opening Day at Globe Life Park on Monday at 3:05 p.m. CT, it will be a matchup of two teams with eyes on the playoffs but a healthy respect for the path that goes through their division to get there.
The Rangers took the Toronto Blue Jays to five games in the 2015 AL Division Series. The lasting impression was the Jose Bautista home run that won Game 5 and the subsequent exclamation point of a bat toss for the ages. The Rangers are heading into the new baseball year with that taste of unfinished business lingering in their mouths.
"We have a good team, better than last year," Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre said. "We have high expectations, and we can't wait until April 4 and start getting it going."
This year, the Rangers come in healthier, with better pitching and more experience. Trade Deadline acquisition Cole Hamels gets the ball for the opener, and he's no stranger to that type of pressure or expectations. 
He will assume the ace role this year in the continued absence of Yu Darvish, who has been ahead of schedule in rehab from his Tommy John surgery and is expected to rejoin the rotation sometime in May.
Prince Fielder, Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo, Delino DeShields and Rougned Odor key a dynamic batting order that should score plenty of runs.
In other words, there is a lot to like about the defending AL West champions, and they will be on display for the first time in front of a raucous Texas-sized crowd.
"The atmosphere is always crazy, especially when you open at home," Hamels said. "The Texas Rangers fans are outstanding, so it's going to be sort of that playoff experience. Hopefully, we can continue that for 81 games at home."
But let's not forget the Mariners.
Last year at this time, the Mariners were a trendy pick to not only win this division but to contend for the World Series. Bullpen woes and offensive inconsistency did them in to the tune of a 76-86 record, but new general manager Jerry Dipoto addressed the team's weaknesses over the offseason.
A refreshed outlook under new manager Scott Servais also could have the team right where it needs to be.
Seattle comes in to 2016 with a renewed commitment to on-base percentage and havoc on the basepaths in the form of Norichika Aoki and Leonys Martin. Plus the heart of its fearsome batting order remains intact with Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager all back and healthy. Rotation reinforcements (Nathan Karns, Wade Miley) and a completely restocked bullpen led by closer Steve Cishek and setup man Joaquin Benoit can only help.
Not surprisingly, the man who will take the ball on Opening Day is ace Felix Hernandez, who has been waiting for the chance to pitch in the postseason for his entire career as one of the American League's elite.
"Pitching on Opening Day means a lot," Hernandez said. "It's a new season, a lot of eyes are on you, so it's fun."
Mariners' projected Opening Day lineup
Nori Aoki LF
Ketel Marte SS
Robinson Cano 2B
Nelson Cruz RF
Kyle Seager 3B
Franklin Gutierrez DH
Adam Lind 1B
Chris Iannetta C
Leonys Martin CF
Felix Hernandez, RHP
Rangers' projected Opening Day lineup
Delino DeShields, CF
Shin-Soo Choo, RF
Adrian Beltre, 3B
Prince Fielder, DH
Mitch Moreland, 1B
Ian Desmond, LF
Rougned Odor, 2B
Elvis Andrus, SS
Robinson Chirinos, C
Cole Hamels, LHP

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