Before J.D. Martinez and the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox take the field to begin the regular season, they're already playing catch up in the American League race.
No, really. The Red Sox are facing a two-game deficit in the AL standings heading into Thursday's regular season opener against the unbeaten Seattle Mariners.
Of course, this is all tongue in cheek, the result of the Mariners having already opened the season with a pair of victories over Oakland in Tokyo last week to open the season. It's certainly going to be short-lived considering the expectations of both teams going into the opener.
The Mariners are beginning what they hope is a relatively short rebuild to again be contenders. They've already reshuffled their roster since playing in Japan _ Ichiro Suzuki retired at 45 after two hitless games in his homeland.
AL MVP Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and the Red Sox are one of the heavy favorites in the AL. They know it and are embracing the expectations of trying to be the first repeat champions since the Yankees three straight titles from 1998-2000.
"We have a good team. We're very talented, everybody knows it," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. "We're ready. We know what we're going against. We know that repeating is not easy. We have the perfect group to stay focused and don't listen to the noise and stay locked in. You guys saw it last year. It's a testament to who they are. It's not about Alex, the coaching staff, it's the group. They're very humble and hungry."
Fresh off a new $160 million, six-year contract, Chris Sale will get the opening day start for the Red Sox. On the cusp of his 30th birthday, Sale is coming off a career-low 158 innings pitched last season as he dealt with shoulder troubles.
Sale has loved pitching against Seattle in the past. In 11 career appearances vs. the Mariners, he's 6-1 with a 1.88 ERA. In his past three starts against Seattle, Sale has struck out 14, 11 and 13.
Sale threw the final pitch of last season to win the World Series for Boston. Now he'll throw the first pitch to begin their title defense.
"Finishing that off, the parades, celebrations, all that, that was awesome," Sale said. "But we have a new chapter in the book. We have to go do it again. Like I said we're right at the forefront of something really important to us. It's not going to be easy, it's going to be a grind, but we're up for it and excited for it."
The Red Sox, who posted a franchise-record 108 wins last year, will have to fend off the 100-win Yankees this season minus All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, who became a free agent and hasn't yet signed anywhere.
Marco Gonzales will pitch his second opening day for Seattle after throwing six innings in Japan and earning the victory. Gonzales (1-0) was far from his best against Oakland in the first opener, but was able to make adjustments and settle down enough to keep the Mariners in the game.
"He's a really good competitor. He figured out a way to make it work and he learned a lot from that, so hopefully he can build upon that," Seattle manager Scott Servais said. "I say that, and I hope he's got his 'A' game, his 'A' stuff right out of the chute, but some nights you don't have it, and you've got to still figure out a way and he did."
Gonzales said the scope of all that was happening in Japan and being out of the normal routine was a tough adjustment to make, but may have helped prepare him for the hoopla of a traditional opening day back home.
"The one in Tokyo was something I will remember forever," Gonzales said. "I will have some more family here on Thursday and some friends, my grandparents and people that have been there for every step of the way since I've been able to walk to seen me throw a baseball. So it's special to a lot of people. I'm trying to focus on making it a normal game but it's been a collective effort throughout a lifetime for a lot of people and I've been at the forefront of that for sure but there have been a lot of people who have helped me along the way."