Budget-conscious Rays Challenge Yankees

The Tampa Bay Rays kick-off the 2012 season against their AL East-rivals, the New York Yankees, on Thursday at Tropicana Field. While the two teams field their rosters in a completely different way, both squads are favored to compete for the American League East title and are ready to square-off on Opening Day.

The budget-minded Tampa Bay Rays welcome the challenge of competing against the big-spending New York Yankees. The AL East rivals open the season at Tropicana Field on Friday, and both clubs say that's not a moment too soon to start getting a feel for how they stack up against each other.

Rays manager Joe Maddon believes a tough April schedule will benefit his team in the long run. Yankees skipper Joe Girardi likes the idea of getting an early barometer on his defending division champions, too.

Tampa Bay plays 16 of its first 22 games against teams expected to challenge for postseason berths. The Yankees play 15 games against likely contenders during the same stretch.

''You say you don't make too much out of one game, that some months are going to be tougher than other months,'' Girardi said, conceding it won't be easygoing facing Tampa Bay, Boston, Texas, Detroit and the Los Angeles Angels early on. ''You don't want to make too much out of the first month. But it is a great measuring stick for where we're at, that's for sure.''

The Rays begin the most anticipated season in franchise history, confident they have what it takes to continue to hold their own against the Yankees and Red Sox, whose monumental September collapse helped Tampa Bay earn a wild-card playoff spot on the final night of last season. They did it by rallying from a 7-0, eighth-inning deficit to beat the Yankees 8-7 in 12 innings.

Rays opening day starter James Shields said it's only fitting that the new season begins at home against the same opponent.

''We wouldn't want it any other way,'' Shields, a first-time All-Star in 2011, said. ''We're fired up, ready to go.''

So is New York, which has made the playoffs 16 of the past 17 seasons, 12 times as division champions. The Yankees retooled their pitching rotation, record-setting closer Mariano Rivera is back for an 18th season and figure to continue to score runs in a bunches with a lineup built around Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, who's healthy again after only appearing in 99 games while batting .276 with 16 homers and 62 RBIs last season.

''I like this club. When I look at the depth that we have and the health of our players right now, I feel really good about it'' Girardi said Thursday before the Yankees worked out at Tropicana Field.

New York's CC Sabathia, who's won at least 19 games each of the past three years, will make the ninth opening day start of his career - fourth with the Yankees, who rewarded the left-hander this winter with a contract extension that added $30 million and one season to an existing deal that now will pay him $122 million over the next five years. Although the 2007 AL Cy Young Award winner has a 9-7 lifetime mark vs. Tampa Bay, he's 2-6 with a 3.69 ERA in 13 starts against the Rays since signing with the Yankees as a free agent before the 2009 season.

His overall body of work is exemplary, though. His 59 wins since in three seasons in New York are the second-most in the major league during that span behind Justin Verlander's 61.

''He has averaged 20 wins a year, you saw what he's done in the playoffs for us. It's hard to imagine our club without him and where we'd be,'' Girardi said. ''You need that guy you can count on every fifth day that can put an end to a losing streak, that can carry a load if your bullpen is tired, that gives you quality innings and distance and wins. Every good club has to have that guy, and he has been that guy the last three years for us.''

Sabathia, 19-8 with a 3.00 ERA last year, welcomes the responsibility of helping his team get off to a strong start.

''I think that's what every pitcher wants is to be that guy that every time out the team has confidence that you have a good chance to win,'' Sabathia said. ''I put a lot of pressure on myself, so any outside pressure has no effect on how I go out and play. I expect myself to go out and pitch well every time out and give the team a chance to win, so the pressure of being an ace or whatever doesn't compare at all to what I put on myself.''

That's a role that Shields has grown into with the Rays. The 30-year-old right-hander rebounded from a subpar 2010 in which he permitted an AL-leading 34 homers to go 16-12 with a 2.82 ERA in 33 starts last season. He set Rays records with 11 complete games and four shutouts, finishing third in Cy Young balloting behind Verlander and Jared Weaver.

''Our team is looking real good. We're feeling good. We're nice and loose in the clubhouse,'' Shields said. ''I'm excited to get this thing rockin'.''

Maddon has stressed all spring the importance of getting off to a strong start, regardless of the difficulty of Tampa Bay's early schedule. The Rays, who have one of baseball's best young rotations and bolstered their offense by adding sluggers Carlos Pena and Luke Scott this offseason, overcame a nine-game deficit to slip past the Red Sox into the playoffs last September.

But that's not a blueprint for continued success in division in which Sabathia says the Yankees have the talent to repeat as champions, the Red Sox feel they have something to prove and that Toronto figures to be better.

''There's no denying that,'' Maddon said. ''We proved we can do it another way last year like we did, however it's not the easy or right way to do it. You prefer getting off to a good start. ... If you can do that, it can set up the rest of the season.''


Notes: The Rays will begin the season without closer Kyle Farnsworth, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a sore right elbow.

... A-Rod is joining the social media frenzy, setting up a Facebook page to interact with fans.

... Yankees RHP Michael Pineda, who will begin the season on the disabled list because of inflammation in a shoulder tendon, has resumed throwing. He played catch in the outfield Thursday, making 43 throws.

... New York claimed RHP Cody Eppley off waivers from Texas. The reliever will join Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

... Yankees switch-pitcher Pat Venditte has been promoted and is on the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre opening day roster. He spent last season at Double-A.

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