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At last, Orioles set to play again

10:12 AM EDT, April 2, 2013

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It seems like only a few days ago that the Orioles were playing the Tampa Bay Rays with second place on the line.

Oh, wait a minute, that really was only a few days ago, but the Orioles were trying to hold onto second place in the Grapefruit League standings. It actually seems like about six months since the O’s were here in Florida playing the final regular-season series of the year with their first playoff berth in 15 years hanging in the balance.

So it begins again.

When 2012 Cy Young Award winner David Price takes the mound this afternoon to throw the first pitch of the seasson for the Tampa Bay Rays and Nick Markakis stands in to try and hit it, the two teams that could be battling again at the end will begin a 2013 season that is desperately important to both franchises.

The Rays have proven over and over that they can compete with the big boys in the AL East on a shoestring budget. The Orioles showed last year that the developmental strategy of Andy MacPhail and the depth-intensive approach of Dan Duquette can produce a strong playoff contender in a division where money has spoken most loudly for the past couple of decades.

The Rays took a big gamble when they traded top-flight starter James Shields to the Kansas City Royals for some big-time minor league talent, but they needed to upgrade their offensive attack. The Orioles took what many thought was a big gamble by not going out and making a flashy trade or free agent acquisition to double down on last year’s uplifting performance. Both teams need to get off to a good start.

In all likelihood, today’s game will be a tight-fisted pitching duel between Price and Orioles ace Jason Hammel, which leaves open the very real possibility that neither pitcher will end up getting a decision and the Orioles will get a chance to add to their string of 16 consecutive regular-season victories in extra innings.

Manager Buck Showalter clearly thinks that one matchup here or there might end up making the difference, which is why he surprised everyone Monday by announcing that 20-year-old third baseman Manny Machado would move into the No. 2 hole in the lineup against the Rays' super-talented left-hander.

The Orioles came out of spring training about as well as could be expected. Brian Roberts made it through and will start today, but will bat ninth in the order. Nolan Reimold showed that he is healthy after extensive neck surgery and will start in left field.  Look for Showalter to manipulate his lineup on a daily basis to try and assure that both of them are available all year, but today is a major personal victory for each of them.

Some of the preseason prognosticators are predicting that the Orioles fall back off the map this year after winning 93 games last season, which is certainly possible in a division where just about anybody could conceivably finish anywhere. But there are plenty of reasons to believe the Orioles can repeat last year’s success or even improve on it.

Markakis missed a big chunk of last season, so a full year from him would add significantly to the Orioles' offensive production. Hammel was limited to only 20 starts by a knee injury, which  leaves some real upside even though he pitched very well when he was available. Roberts and Reimold are wild cards, but there is little question that the Orioles start the season with a better top-to-bottom lineup than a year ago.

There is a lot that isn’t knowable about the pitching staff, but Showalter and pitching coach Rick Adair came out of spring training with enough depth to hold the starting rotation together if one of last year’s lions turns into a lamb.

It’ll be tough to repeat some of the magical things that happened last year, which is why some people think they’ll have trouble picking up where they left off last October.

Guess it’s time to find out.