LET THE GAMES BEGIN

Spring Training is finally over and the season has begun. The Cubs and Cardinals opened the season last night at the unfinished but newly refurbished Wrigley Field. The rest of the teams kick off today with the Red Sox opening against the National League Philadelphia Phillies in Philadelphia.

As you know if you read this column regularly, I was in Florida for the last two weeks of Spring Training. Today, I am in Tampa waiting for the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles to kick off their seasons at Tropicana Field. As is always the case here in Tampa, and most places around the Major Leagues, Opening Day will be sold out. As is not always the case around the rest of the Major Leagues, Game 2 of the Rays season will probably be viewed by less than half as many fans.

The Rays, even in years when they have been in the hunt, have never drawn well in Tropicana Field. It may well be worse than ever this season now that the popular Joe Madden, who may be the best Manager in baseball, is managing the Chicago Cubs and fan favorite Ben Zobrist, who seemed to play everywhere for the Rays before leaving this year, is not on the field.

Anyway, the Rays under new Manager Kevin Cash will probably not be in the race for the Eastern Division title this year. After watching four of that Division’s teams and others play for two weeks, I am convinced that the Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles are the only two teams with the potential to win the title.

Watching the Red Sox try to whittle their overabundance of outfielders down to a manageable number has been interesting. It appears that Hanley Ramirez will start in left, as expected since he was signed by the Sox, and that Mookie Betts, who has not only hit the cover off the ball but has played center field like he was born there, will be the center fielder. Shane Victorino should start in right field. He has shown no signs of the physical problems that he experienced last year and, although he has not hit for average, has been swinging the bat as well as I have ever seen him.

I was in Bright House Field, in Clearwater, Spring Training home of the Philadelphia Phillies on last Wednesday to see the Phillies host the Atlanta Braves. Cole Hamels started and pitched six innings for the Phillies and gave up just one earned run on six hits while walking just one. Of the six hits, three were of the bleeder variety. Hamels was consistently throwing in the low nineties and was in command all the way. It’s easy to see why the Yankees and Red Sox were both after him.

Chase Utley also showed why he is considered one of the best overall second basemen in the game, hammering consecutive homers off Braves right hander Julio Teheran who is scheduled to start Opening Day for Atlanta. Teheran, who was 14-13 last year with a 2.89 ERA and only gave up 22 homers the whole season, gave up four in four innings against the Phils.

The day before, I had seen Yankee Ace Masahiro Tanaka pitch 4 1/3 innings against the Minnesota Twins at the Century Link Sports Complex in Fort Myers. Tanaka gave up a run in the third and one in the fourth and fifth but showed no signs of any problems with the tear in his elbow that put him on the disabled list last year. He threw 76 pitches, 56 for strikes, but was consistently under 90 miles per hour with his fast ball which could be due to the tear.

On Monday, I had watched the Red Sox host the Twins at Jet Blue Park or Fenway South. The Sox looked like the offensive powerhouse everybody expects them to be, scoring six runs in the fourth inning off Brian Duensing on Mike Napoli’s homer and doubles by Shane Victorino, Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia and winning the game 14-2 with 19 hits.

More importantly, Justin Masterson, who should be an important part of the Sox starting rotation, gave up just one unearned run in 5 2/3 innings, striking out four and walking just one. Brian Dozier, the Twins second baseman walked to lead off the sixth and, when Joe Mauer singled to right, Shane Victorino bobbled the ball allowing Dozier to go to third and he scored when Torii Hunter hit into a double play for the Twins only run off Masterson. Masterson looked as strong when he finished as when he started the game and was consistently throwing in the low nineties with his off speed stuff coming in in the 76-78 mile per hour range.

The loss of Christian Vasquez for the season after Tommy John surgery this past week is a blow to the Sox. Ryan Hanigan, who was expected to be the back up catcher will step in to the gap. He is a .256 career hitter who was with the Tampa Bay Rays last year and has looked good in spring training. The Sox also picked up Sandy Leon from the Washington Nationals to be Hanigan’s backup. Leon has limited experience and played in just 20 games with the Nats last year, hitting just .156. The Sox may have to rush Blake Swihart’s development if Leon does not work out.

The weather here in Florida has been excellent the whole time I have been here with temperatures ranging from the mid seventies to mid eighties and only one day of rain. I am sure that the weather won’t be that good in Philadelphia when the Sox open today.

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