Opening day is one of my favorite holidays of the year. Second only to Christmas, if we're being honest. Yes, I know that opening day technically isn't a holiday, but for me it's the day that not only indicates that warm weather is around the corner (whether you believe it or not), but also a time of hope for 30 different fan bases across North America. I celebrate its meaning this time every year.
Each team takes the field tied for first place on opening day, full of optimism about the the next 162 games. Players and teams that disappointed the previous season look to start anew while the contenders look to build on their previous success.
Our hometown Orioles find themselves in a unique position on this particular opening day. For the first time since 1998, they're starting a season with the hopes of returning to the postseason and take their journey one step further. The O's are out to prove the naysayers wrong - you know, the ones who point to their 29-9 record in one-run games and call them lucky for their success. They're looking to show the world that run differential doesn't determine a good team, wins do.
In years past, the Orioles have been forced to put disappointing seasons behind them when they took the field on opening day. Fans became used to mentally blocking the previous season and would find new hope in April. In 2013, O's fans don't want to forget the past. In fact, if they're anything like me, they wish 2012 never ended.
But despite that 93-69 finish last season, the Orioles would be best if they did put it behind them and forget about last year as they take the field today in St. Petersburg, Fla. Don't get me wrong, the Birds should be proud of what they accomplished a year ago - and I'll be wearing my 2012 postseason gear to the home opener Friday - but let last season be last season. In the end, unless you won the World Series, it doesn't really matter what you did a year ago.
The experts have predicted the Orioles to finish anywhere from first to fifth in the American League East, and with improvements in Boston and Tampa Bay this season, the division is truly up for grabs. Despite my optimism for the next six months, there does remain a level of uncertainty with this team and a few things certainly will have to go right for them to remain in the hunt for October.
After last year's breakout season, the Orioles are relying on similar performances from starters Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen this year. Gonzalez surprised everyone when he was called up in late May. By July 6, he was in the rotation and two months later, he was one of the O's most dependable starters, winning big games on the road in New York, Boston and Tampa Bay. Gonzalez finished the season with a 3.25 ERA over just 105 1/3 innings pitched. This season, the Orioles are depending on him to repeat that success over nearly twice as many innings.
The same is true for Chris Tillman, who the Birds leaned heavily on in the second half after he was called up from Triple-A Norfolk. Over 15 starts, Tillman posted a 2.93 ERA and led the O's to victory 10 times over three months. This spring he made the cut and will be a part of the rotation when he returns from the disabled list April 6.
For the most part Dan Duquette has kept the 2012 Orioles assembled in 2013, but how will the lineup fare without Mark Reynolds, who hit .294/.410/.804 with seven homers and 14 RBIs against the Yankees last season? Can Chris Davis replace Reynolds' defense at first base while repeating his power numbers (33 home runs, 85 RBIs, 121 OPS+) at the plate? If spring training is any indication, the answer is yes.
I'm confident in the Orioles this season because the strongest element of their game, the bullpen, should be even better in 2013. They'll get the league leader in saves, Jim Johnson, back in the ninth inning with Darren O'Day (2.28 ERA, 0.940 WHIP) setting him up. Not to mention a full season of Tommy Hunter, who was throwing 100 mph in September, and Brian Matusz (1.35 ERA, 6.33 K/BB, .114 BAA as a reliever) out of the 'pen. Buck Showalter should feel pretty comfortable if his team carries a lead into the seventh inning.
It's a new season and those who follow Adam Jones on Twitter know that the Orioles are hungry after last year's success. They aren't satisfied with just a postseason appearance, they want to win the Fall Classic and I can't wait to watch them get started on that marathon journey. Happy opening day!
Zach Wilt blogs about the Orioles at Baltimore Sports Report. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com's season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.