Blue Jays at Rays series primer

Joe Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays will open at home for the fifth consecutive season.

Kim Klement

A new beginning has come.

One-hundred seventy-four days have passed since the Boston Red Sox ousted the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League Division Series. Back then, when Tropicana Field emptied for a final time into a warm fall night, questions were plenty as Joe Maddon’s team entered the offseason: What would become of David Price? Would James Loney go elsewhere? How would the Rays address changes to their bullpen?

The answers were pleasing, perhaps better than anyone could have predicted then: Price would stay put, Loney would be re-signed for three years and $21 million, Grant Balfour and Heath Bell would be tapped to replace Fernando Rodney and Jamey Wright.

The Rays’ core was preserved. They dream big because of it.

Now, the exhibitions are over. Now, the tests begin. The Toronto Blue Jays, an AL East foe, represent the first hurdle. They were a disappointing 74-88 last season. But they boast sparkplugs in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so their threat is always alive and well.

Here’s a look at the upcoming Rays-Blue Jays series:

SCHEDULE AND PROBABLE PITCHERS

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WHO’S HOT

Edwin Encarnacion (Toronto Blue Jays): He was the Blue Jays’ most dynamic bat last season, and it wasn’t close. He produced a team-high 104 RBI, 31 more than the second-place finisher in the category, Jose Bautista. A pitch from New York Yankees reliever Preston Claiborne smacked him in the right wrist/forearm last Wednesday, but he appears to be fine.

David Price (Tampa Bay Rays): His return makes the Rays instant contenders. The 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner is Tampa Bay’s ace for a reason, and he showed this spring that he should be primed for another big year. He struck out a team-high 20 in 17 1/3 innings of Grapefruit League play.

WHO’S NOT

R.A. Dickey (Toronto Blue Jays): Will his knuckleball regain its old form? It better. His 4.21 ERA in 34 starts last season was his worst total since posting a 5.21 in 32 appearances with the Seattle Mariners in 2008.

Matt Joyce (Tampa Bay Rays): His batting average dropped to .235 last year in 413 at-bats, which was a career-low total for seasons in which he had more than 32 plate appearances. He’ll likely be a popular choice for manager Joe Maddon at designated hitter, so he must be better.

STORYLINES

8-8: The Rays’ record in season openers. This is the fifth consecutive year they have opened at Tropicana Field and the 10th occasion overall at home. They are 5-4 in such games.

5: Number of banners the Rays will have risen after Opening Day. On Monday, they will raise the 2013 AL wild card banner to the left-field catwalk. Other banners commemorate the following occasions: the 2008 AL East title, 2008 AL championship, the 2010 AL East title and the 2011 AL wild card.

Tampa Bay Rays news

20: Opening Days in which Maddon has participated during his major league career. He was part of 11 as a coach with the California/Anaheim Angels.

QUOTE BOARD

"I’m definitely the happiest person in Port Charlotte."— Price, to reporters, after he arrived for spring training Feb. 14 at Charlotte Sports Park. Following an offseason of trade speculation, the ace left-hander returns for his seventh Rays season. He will make his third Opening Day start, following appearances in 2011 and 2013.

"I want us to eat last this year." — Maddon, to reporters, when he addressed the media after Rays pitchers and catchers reported for spring training Feb. 14. Tampa Bay has adopted the "eat last" mantra as a team slogan this season, following third baseman Evan Longoria’s suggestion to his manager to read the leadership book by Simon Sinek called, "Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t."

"I really can’t describe my feelings right now, to tell you the truth. It’s way too much to put into words, and I don’t think I’d do a good enough job to describe how I’m feeling right now through words. It’s incredible. I don’t even know how to describe it." — Right-hander Jake Odorizzi, to reporters, after being named the Rays’ fifth starter March 22. He beat out left-handers Cesar Ramos and Erik Bedard for the job in the most competitive position battle of spring training. Odorizzi is a career 0-2 with a 4.14 ERA and 26 strikeouts in nine appearances (37 innings) with the Rays and Kansas City Royals in his time in the major leagues.

LOOKING AHEAD

April 4-6: Texas Rangers at Tampa Bay Rays