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Price recaps outing vs. Twins, hopes for improvement

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Internally, the Rays are as optimistic as they've been at any point in franchise history about their chances this season, and the expectations from outside the organization are equally high. But they still have many questions left to answer.

Did they improve their lineup enough to support their loaded pitching staff? Who will make up for the innings James Shields pitched? Will Evan Longoria stay healthy and produce at an MVP-caliber level? Can Yunel Escobar stay out of trouble enough to let his talent speak for itself? When will Wil Myers arrive in the Majors, and what kind of impact will he have?

Meanwhile, the Orioles have faced only one question after a breakthrough 2012 campaign. They stunned baseball by snapping a skid of 14 straight losing seasons, storming out of the American League East cellar and into the playoffs, playing even better as the year went on.

But now, the question remains: Can the Orioles do it again?

Both clubs believe they can answer any questions, silence any doubts and beat anybody in the wide-open AL East. But the honest answer at this point has been something more like, "Wait and see."

Well, the wait is almost over. Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner David Price and the Rays will open the year against righty Jason Hammel and the Orioles on Tuesday afternoon at 3:10 ET at Tropicana Field, right back where they finished the regular season in 2012.

For Tampa Bay, much has changed since that game in early October, when a healthy Longoria blasted three homers, B.J. Upton shed a few tears walking off the field for the last time as a member of the Rays and Fernando Rodney notched his team-record 48th save, maintaining his record-low 0.60 ERA.

The Rays revamped their roster, as their low payroll often forces them to do, but this winter was busy even by their standards. Gone are Shields, Upton, Carlos Pena (again), J.P. Howell, Wade Davis, Jeff Keppinger, Elliot Johnson and Burke Badenhop, and in come Escobar, James Loney, Kelly Johnson, Roberto Hernandez and Myers, the highly touted prospect who will being the year at Triple-A Durham.

"I know we've lost a lot of guys, but that happens to us on an annual basis, so we're kind of used to that stuff," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I think we feel equally good about being able to compete and win this division again. I'm going to say that every year, I think, pretty much from now on."

The Orioles, meanwhile, stood their ground and made no sweeping changes or high-profile additions to their roster, instead choosing to stick with the group that finished second in the AL East a year ago. Despite the high expectations and their status as a contender, the O's had about as quiet an offseason as anyone in baseball.

Baltimore made plenty of noise last year, though. Picked to finish last in the usually top-heavy AL East, the Orioles rode a strong core of position players, a tremendous bullpen and a 29-9 record in one-run games -- the best in Major League history -- all the way to their first postseason berth since 1997.

But that unprecedented success in close games has led many people to say the Orioles were simply lucky last year, that they can't possibly hope to contend again using that same formula. In other words, they say, the O's were a fluke.

Don't tell Orioles manager Buck Showalter what they're saying, though.

"People that play the game know that 'they say' is the biggest liar," Showalter said earlier this spring. "I know what they say about us. We're supposed to be in last place. That's all right. Our guys, they're used to that environment."

So now, the Orioles are out to prove that last year wasn't a fluke, that their breakout campaign in 2012 was a warning to the rest of the AL East that they're here to stay, much like the Rays announced their arrival as perennial contenders in 2008.

The Rays went from worst to first that year. The Orioles went from 69-93 to 93-69 last year. But in this year's AL East, perhaps as balanced from top to bottom as it's been at any point, neither club will be catching anybody by surprise -- least of all each other.

"Expectations are good; I like expectations," Maddon said. "I think they give you something to live up to. There may have been a time you might run away from that stuff or cower a bit, but I think we're beyond that and I would like to believe that our players really enjoy that stuff, too."

Orioles: Can bullpen be that good again?
While often attributed to luck or coincidence, Baltimore's historic success in late and close games was largely a product of its excellent bullpen work across the board. The O's relievers were healthy, and they were as good as they've been in their careers. The Orioles were 74-0 with a lead after seven innings, 75-1 with a lead after eight and 16-2 in extra-innings games.

While their starters struggled to a 61-58 record and a 4.42 ERA, Orioles relievers went 32-11 with a 3.00 ERA over 545 1/3 innings. And nobody was better than closer Jim Johnson, who's back this year after saving a club-record 51 games in 2012. He was just the 10th pitcher to record 50 saves or more in one season since 1969, when the save became an official statistic.

And Johnson (2-1, 2.49 ERA) benefited from equally impressive work by returning setup men Darren O'Day (7-1, 2.28 ERA in 67 innings) and Pedro Strop (5-2, 2.44 ERA in 66 1/3 innings).

Rays: What's next for Price?
Price will make his second Opening Day start against the Orioles, likely the first of many more to come for the Rays' 27-year-old ace. Price went 20-5 with a 2.56 ERA in 2012 and will be among the favorites win the AL Cy Young Award, something he accomplished last year. The lefty says he can improve on last year's performance by better utilizing his offspeed pitches, and he hopes to pick up even more innings to make up for the loss of Shields, who was dealt to Kansas City along with Wade Davis for Myers.

Only three times since 2000 has a reigning Cy Young Award winner lost on Opening Day the year after winning the honor (Cliff Lee, 2009; Roy Halladay, '04; Randy Johnson, '03). Price took the loss in his previous Game 1 start, also against the Orioles.

"[Being the Opening Day starter] is what you want to be," Price said recently. "I don't only want to be the best on a staff; I want to be the best in baseball. That's what I strive to be, year in and year out."

Worth noting
• The Orioles beat the Rays in the 2012 season series, 10-8, but Tampa Bay scored more runs over those 18 games than Baltimore, 61-56.

• Last year was the Rays' third consecutive season with 90 wins or more and their fifth straight winning season. How hard is it to do that? Only the Yankees (20) and Cardinals (five) have current streaks that long.

• The Orioles went 38-20 from Aug. 1 through the end of the regular season, posting the best winning percentage (.655) in baseball. For all the talk of their run differential, they scored 273 runs (second in the East to the Yankees' 295) and allowed 206 (second to the Rays' 167) during that span.

• The Rays finished 46-35 at Tropicana Field last season and have gone 251-154 there since 2008, putting them behind only the Yankees.

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