Tonight we see if the O's can turn optimism into wins

The long offseason is over and the Orioles begin the 2011 season tonight against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Birds went 7-11 against Tampa last year and have not won the season series against the Rays since 2007.

A lot of people expect a major falloff from Tampa this year with all the free agents the Rays lost. I don't see it. I still see a formidable pitching staff and a possible playoff contender.

After years of watching top prospects join the Rays, it will be strange to see them rely on Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez this year. Things will probably not be boring, anyway.

As for the Orioles, it's time for BuckBall, the full-season version and fans seem pretty jacked to watch this club play.

Here are three key reasons to be excited:

* BuckBall: Buck Showalter is on the cover of the media guide and on the TV commercials. In just two months, he may have become the most popular O's skipper since Earl Weaver. While the players deserve their share of the credit for the last two months last year, it was still stunning to see an O's team on its way to well over 100 losses finish 34-23. Buck, right now, is simply the man and has become, in just 57 games, the face of this franchise. Fans can't wait to see what happens next with Showalter in charge.

* Improved lineup: New York, Boston and Tampa Bay were the three highest-scoring teams in the American League in 2010 and Toronto led the league in homers. The O's were next to last in the AL in runs and had to make upgrades on offense, and they did. They needed better hitters around some of their young players and they added them. Three AL teams scored more than 800 runs last year and, yes, they were New York, Boston and Tampa. Some think the O's can do that this year. They should do a lot better than 613 runs, but 800 may be asking too much.

* The young rotation: Most that predict the O's will continue to struggle or fall short of a winning season this year point to the youth in the rotation. They don't feel those young starters will be good enough. Expectations are probably off-the-charts high for Brian Matusz. To me, Jake Arrieta could turn into another big-time talent. Meanwhile, fans seem to still have some questions about Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman, and I do, too. Bergesen looked like a rotation mainstay in 2009, but on many nights he seems to struggle with his mechanics. Tillman still hasn't made the transition from Triple-A success to major league success.

The debut of Zach Britton may be the most anticipated moment of the early part of the season. We are all assuming it will come early on, perhaps in late April.

The Orioles' rotation right now is full of potential and promise, but still lacking in solid and consistent results. If the potential leads to those results this year, as some feel it can, this could be a lot of fun this summer.

The O's may have as many question marks as any team out there. The young starters, the hope that older players like Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero still have something left and the hope that Brian Roberts and others stay healthy and on the field.

It is just hard to get a handle on how all of this will play out. But maybe that is the fun of the season, seeing how it all will work out.

The long ride begins tonight. Time to settle in and play ball.

Final reminder: Come on out to Hightopps Backstage Grille on York Road in Timonium tonight for our MASNsports.com chat with fans from 6 to 7 p.m. before we settle in to watch the game on MASN. We will have a pair of tickets to Monday's home opener to give away.

What will you be doing at 10 p.m. tonight?: Maybe you'll be basking in the glow of an Orioles season-opening win. You can also be tuning me in on the radio on 105.7 FM the Fan in Baltimore. The debut edition of "Baltimore Baseball Tonight" postgame hits air tonight at 10 p.m. I'll host the show each weeknight this year as we talk about the Orioles and take lots of calls, hopefully many from readers of this blog. Hope you can tune and call in after the game tonight.

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