Yankees head into opener as underdogs

Darth Vader’s theme music blared from the speakers at Yankee

Stadium while the team worked out under sunny skies as if the

Yankees needed a reminder that they are indeed still the ”Evil

Empire” and not the underdogs that they have been labeled.

”As crazy as that sounds, nobody seems to believe in us but

us,” opening-day starter CC Sabathia said Wednesday.

Sabathia and New York will get an early chance to prove to the

rest of baseball that even though they lost out on free agent Cliff

Lee and have a suspect rotation, the 2011 version of the Yankees is

up to the challenge of recapturing the AL East.

Baseball is coming to the Bronx for the first time in March –

weather permitting – when the Yankees open the season Thursday

against formidable foes Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and the

Detroit Tigers, and New York is ready to prove its critics

wrong.

”I think with the winter that we’ve had, we’re all looking

forward to this day,” manager Joe Girardi said.

It’s hard to find anything much odder in the Bronx than hearing

the Yankees defend their chances – OK, knowing that a cobra has

escaped from the Bronx Zoo and could be slithering around the

rugged borough is pretty shocking.

”I told the guys, our guys, be the best that we can be,”

Girardi said.

On ESPN.com, 45 baseball pundits offered predictions for the

season. All 45 picked the Boston Red Sox to win the AL East.

Rain and temperatures more typical of the postseason may put a

damper on the festivities that will be a little more subdued this

year after the Yankees failed to repeat as World Series champions

last October, losing to Texas in the AL championship series.

”It’s going to be perfect weather, 40s and rain. A good day to

pitch,” Tigers starting catcher Alex Avila said.

With Verlander on the mound for Detroit on a chilly day, Derek

Jeter might have to wait until Game 2 Saturday to move closer to

his 3,000th hit. He starts the season 74 from becoming the first

player in pinstripes to reach the milestone.

”We’re facing one of the best pitchers in baseball Day 1,”

Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. ”We’ve got to be ready

to go or it could be a long day for hitters.”

Verlander spent his March preparing as if it were April, hoping

to avoid the same type of start he had last year. The hard throwing

right-hander was 1-2 with a 5.29 ERA in opening month of the

season. He finished the year 18-9 with a 3.37 ERA.

”He figured out some things, some flaws that he had and some

other ways to go about doing things that might help him,” Tigers

manager Jim Leyland said. ”His concentration level improved on

days that he doesn’t have to pitch.”

The first batter Verlander faces will not be Jeter, who slumped

to a .270 average last year and eliminated his stride from his

much-scrutinized swing. Girardi tapped left-handed hitting Brett

Gardner to lead off against righties.

”The job that he did against right-handed pitching last season,

he was second in on-base percentage against right-handers … his

ability to disrupt defenses, the pressure that he puts on pitching

staffs, his ability to score runs we thought it was a good fit,”

said Girardi, who will use Jeter in the top spot against

lefties.

Jeter is hitting .314 from the second hole and .313 in the

leadoff spot for his career.

”It doesn’t make a difference,” Jeter said. ”I’ve hit second

more than I hit first, so who cares.”

Curtis Granderson will return to the Yankees lineup Thursday.

Out with a strained muscle since March 22, the center fielder had

two doubles and an RBI in a minor league game in Tampa, Fla., and

said he was hoping to fly to New York Wednesday night.

Leyland was set on his lineup, and wasn’t feeling particularly

interested in discussing the different looks his team could have

this season, especially with second baseman Carlos Guillen starting

the season on the disabled list.

”I don’t know why everybody keeps making a big deal about

lineups,” Leyland said. ”We’ve got the big boys in the middle,

we’ve got some speed up top, we got a little power at the bottom.

That’s what it is.”

NOTES: A.J. Burnett had a bad head cold and it was uncertain if

he’ll be able to make his start for New York on Saturday. …

Leyland said he will not talk about his contract status this

season. In the last year of his two-year extension, Leyland said

his father once gave him some advice, ”If you go to work worrying

about your job you don’t have a job.” … Tigers RHP Joel Zumaya

(right elbow) was placed on the 15-day DL along with Guillen (left

knee) on Wednesday. They both remained in Florida for

rehabilitation as planned. … Detroit non-roster invitee RHP

Enrique Gonzalez’s contract was purchased from Triple-A Toledo and

he was added to the Tigers roster. To make room on the 40-man

roster the, Tigers outrighted INF Audy Ciriaco to Double-A Erie.

… The Yankees signed RHP Luis Ayala, RHP Bartolo Colon, RHP

Freddy Garcia and C Gustavo Molina to major league contracts and

added them to the Yankees’ roster. Ayala is taking the place of LHP

Pedro Feliciano, who was put on the 15-day disabled list along with

C Francisco Cervelli. Both are retroactive to March 22.