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Spring Training slate kicks off today

Spring Training slate kicks off today

It has been 118 days since Mariano Rivera induced Shane Victorino into a 4-3 groundout and gave the Yankees their 27th World Series title, and we are happy to announce that there is a Major League Baseball game today for the first time since then. Rejoice: The games are officially back.

The Braves face the Mets at 1:10 p.m. ET in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and that is where the long road toward a World Series begins in 2010. Two teams hoping to end the Phillies' streak of three National League East titles. Tommy Hanson, coming off an electrifying rookie season in which he went 11-4 with a 2.89 ERA in 21 starts, opens on the mound for Atlanta. Nelson Figueroa starts for Mets, so he throws the year's first pitch.

So begins the Grapefruit League schedule, and so begins the farewell tour of Braves manager Bobby Cox, who is retiring after the season. It will be a first for everything. A first live look at Jose Reyes to see if he is truly back in form. The first hits, the first strikeouts, the first routine grounders, maybe the first home runs. The first time we watch baseball in 2010.

Fans all around Major League Baseball will be watching this game, because it is the only one on Tuesday featuring two MLB clubs (the Pirates and Tigers each play college teams), and because it is that fabulous first glimpse of the basic structure of the national pastime. Nine guys out in the field, nine batters in a row, nine innings, three outs an inning. Bring it on. Fire up the MLB.TV Premium, subscriptions now on sale.

This is the week that it all comes back, and there are some fabulous matchups in the early going. Imagine the scene when Roy Halladay makes his debut for the Phillies on Thursday against CC Sabathia and the visiting Yankees in Clearwater. At 3:05 p.m. ET on Friday, two games will start with special significance. Ben Sheets will start for Oakland against his former Brewers teammates in Phoenix. And in nearby Goodyear, the Reds -- who just moved their camp there after generations of spring ball in Florida -- are "host" to the Indians in a game between the facility's two tenants and the state of Ohio's two Major League Baseball franchises.

The first game featuring the reigning world champs will be Wednesday against Pittsburgh at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa. Gone from the Bronx Bombers are World Series MVP Hideki Matsui, Johnny Damon, Brian Bruney, Melky Cabrera and Phil Coke. But Curtis Granderson, Nick Johnson and Javier Vazquez are in, and it will be the first chance to see Joe Girardi manage with a No. 28 jersey -- giving up 27 for title reasons.

For fans, a Spring Training game means the sight you have yearned for over many long weeks. For a guy like Rivera, who threw that last pitch and then turned 40 just days later, it means doing exactly what he has done every spring during his career, a time to get into a routine that will carry him through summer and fall.

"I think at this age, I definitely have an idea of what I have to do and what I need," Rivera said. "It's Spring Training. Come and get ready. I don't think that, in my case, I have to come in and impress anybody. I just have to make sure that I'm ready for the season, and that's what I try to do."

Pirates at Yankees will be one of four 1:05 Grapefruit League starts that day, along with Tigers at Blue Jays in Dunedin, Mets at Braves in Lake Buena Vista and Rays at Orioles in Sarasota. Also Wednesday in Arizona, the Cactus League exhibition season will get under way when Tim Lincecum -- beginning the road to what could be a third consecutive NL Cy Young Award -- makes the start against Chone Figgins and an improved Mariners club at 3:05 p.m. ET in Peoria.

The gradual buildup toward full-slate baseball continues with almost everyone playing on Thursday. Rick Porcello starts that day for the Tigers against the Blue Jays in Lakeland -- the same Porcello who looked so good in that magnificent tiebreaker game at Minnesota last October. Maybe some of that Team Canada magic will transfer itself to the guys from Toronto; they are in a tough division, but at this time of year you tell yourself that anything is possible. Maybe this is when a Toronto run begins. Maybe it's Detroit's time.

Spring Training games begin with a tease, with your favorite players dipping in their toes and then replaced by players wearing ever higher jersey numbers. Halladay will be followed in his first outing by Kyle Kendrick, Jose Contreras, Drew Carpenter and Sergio Escalona.

Traditions come surging back. You will see the Cubs that day, playing at their longtime home of HoHoKam Park in Mesa, against the A's, and at that point "next year" is officially here. Cubs fans always "wait'll next year." One can only wonder if 2010 will mark the first World Series title since 1908 for them.

It is that hope on a grander scale that infects everyone at this time, not just the possibility that the Cubs could win a World Series but also that any of our teams could exceed or at least live up to the expectations. There were so many changes over the offseason, the wheels of player movement always turning fast. This is when you see how they look on their jobs.

The biggest noisemaker of the offseason was a megadeal that included two Cy Young winners -- Halladay and Cliff Lee. The first exhibition outing will come later for the latter than for the former. Lee, getting his left foot healthy, will throw a side session for the Mariners today, and "if that goes well, he would throw a simulated game on Friday," Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu said. "We're looking at March 10 being his first [Cactus League] start" against Texas.

Maybe against Vlad Guerrero, who now plays for the Rangers.

"I spent a lot of time in Anaheim, but here I am in Texas," Guerrero said on Sunday, arriving as the club's designated hitter. "I've been here about five or six days and I'm getting to know the guys. Everybody has been really nice to me. I know I'm going to like it here."

The last time John Lackey heard that command was on Oct. 22, 2009. He then threw the first pitch to Derek Jeter on a night when the Angels won Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. The Yankees eliminated them a game later in New York, and now Lackey starts for the Yankees' rivals in Boston. This week begins the gradual process of determining the order of an outstanding rotation -- and whether Boston's Opening Day starter might be Josh Beckett, Jon Lester or Lackey.

Beckett starts Thursday at 7:05 p.m. ET against the Twins, followed a day later by Lester and Tim Wakefield on the hill. Lackey's debut for the Red Sox is Saturday against Minnesota.

"Well, we've got the Mayor's Cup to think about, always," quipped Red Sox manager Terry Francona about his club's face-off with the Twins, a reminder that Spring Training in Fort Myers, where both clubs train, is not just about preparing for the Major League regular season, but also about casual fun for the fans.

This is the time when comebacks are mounted. Could Ben Sheets rebound from elbow surgery the way Chris Carpenter did in St. Louis? Sheets is now a starter for the A's. He threw 30 pitches in live BP on Sunday and said, "Everything was good. Felt fine." He is still considered on course for an Opening Night start against Seattle, but the Cactus League may decide much of that. Just imagine how much fun it will be at 3:05 p.m. ET on Friday, when Sheets starts in Phoenix against the visiting Brewers -- his original club.

While Lincecum will be back at it for San Francisco, what about those two pitchers who won the NL Cy Young right before him? Jake Peavy (2007 winner) is now settled in with the White Sox and will start the second game of the season, behind Mark Buehrle. About halfway through the exhibition schedule, you might see 2006 winner Brandon Webb making a start -- on the way to what the D-backs hope will be a season debut during the first series against San Diego. For now, he is working out his mechanics amid ongoing rehab throwing.

Last season, Webb made just one start due to shoulder issues that required surgery in August. On Sunday, he threw half of his pitches from the stretch and may have had a breakthrough with the mechanics.

"I feel like I sit down on my back leg for my load in the stretch, and I don't do that in the windup," Webb said. "So in the last eight [throws], I went back from the stretch to the windup again and tried to feel like I was sitting down on my back leg, it was just a little bit, but I think there's something to that."

That is the kind of language heard often this time of year. There will also be a lot of talk about job competition and about end-of-roster decisions. New Nationals manager Jim Riggleman said the most difficult part of Spring Training is trying to figure out the bench.

"I think there are a lot of different scenarios with the bench," Riggleman said. "The bench is tough because you can paint a picture of 11 pitchers as opposed to 12. Most teams carry 12 pitchers. That has something to say about how your bench is used or how many left-handed or right-handed hitters you could carry."

It is time to get a look at Jason Heyward. He ranked No. 1 on the latest MLB.com Top 50 Prospects list and already has been making a name for himself not only by wreaking havoc on automobiles parked beyond the right-field wall but also by tweeting en masse with fans who are connecting fast with a progeny. There is a very good chance he will break camp as a Braves outfielder, especially if he fares well against Grapefruit League pitching.

It is time to get a look at Stephen Strasburg against Major League batters -- maybe even against Heyward. The Nationals' top overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft drew oohs and ahhs while throwing more than 35 pitches in 12 minutes of live batting practice on Saturday, and he is tentatively scheduled to make his Spring Training debut on March 9 against the Tigers at Space Coast Stadium. Strasburg is expected to pitch two innings or throw 30 to 40 pitches.

"It's exciting," he said. "It's going to be the first outing of Spring Training. I'm ready for it. I'm excited to go out there and face some hitters in a game. I still have some work to do and want to keep working hard up to that outing and for the entire season."

Jeremy Guthrie, 30, has been around quite a bit longer than Heyward and Strasburg. He was just named the Orioles' starter Wednesday against the Rays. While Strasburg is working with a blank slate, Guthrie is intent on wiping out the memory of 17 losses in 2009. Spring Training is about rebirth, about starting over and only looking ahead. He is part of a projected rotation that includes Kevin Millwood, Brad Bergesen, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman.

"I'm excited," said Guthrie, whose last start was Oct. 4. "I'm happy to open up Ed Smith Stadium."

Everyone is excited. Football is over. The Winter Olympics are over. Actual baseball games are now on the schedule. It will continue until a World Series clincher.

Get ready for Albert Pujols, Matt Wieters, B.J. Upton, Jose Reyes, Andre Ethier and Troy Tulowitzki. Get ready for Alfonso Soriano, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Adam Lind, Joe Mauer, Zack Greinke and Chase Utley. Get ready for Grady Sizemore, Chris Coghlan, Hunter Pence, Adrian Gonzalez and Kendry Morales.

The games are back.

The national pastime is back.

Play ball!

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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