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
”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,”
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
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.”