Since October 29th, I have had an empty taste in my mouth. That was the night that the Rays improbable run to the World Series ended with Brad Lidge striking out Eric Hinske to win the World Series for the Philadelphia Phillies. A year in which both of my favorite teams had amazing regular seasons and looked poised to face each other in that World Series (Chicago Cubs and Tampa Bay Rays), neither team came up with the elusive championship. The Cubs' drought was extended to 100 years, while the Rays remain without a World Series title in their 11 year history, despite winning the AL pennant last year. The Cubs haven't done that since 1945 though, so honestly I'd be happy if they just got to the World Series too. Well actually that's a lie, that might actually be more painful if they got there and still didn't win it.
So today I will get to have my first glimpse at the 2009 Rays and the Cubs. I did get a small glimpse at the Cubs on Friday night in their overly glorified exhibition game against the Yankees, but I'll finally get to see the real deal tonight against the Astros.
In just 2 and a half hours though, I'll get my first glimpse at the Tampa Bay Rays in a rematch of last years classic ALCS against the Boston Red Sox. We will get our first inkling as to whether last year was a fluke for the Rays, or if there is a third horse in the AL East race for years to come. I'm thinking it is the latter, the Rays were a young team last year and had lots of injury troubles yet still made it all the way to the top. Yeah, they fell short in the World Series, but that was the first postseason ever for that team and for almost every player on the team, so I chalk the World Series loss to inexperience though most of the Phillies hadn't been there either. They were still an older team though, the weather conditions didn't help the Rays either who are used to playing in a controlled climate inside the Tropicana Field dome.
As for the Cubs, will the drought reach 101? If the Cubs had been able to trade for Jake Peavy, maybe not, but even without him the starting rotation is still formidable. You don't get a more solid 4 than Carlos Zambrano, Rich Harden, Ted Lilly, and Ryan Dempster. The fifth starter offers a bit of a drop off with Sean Marshall, but he's got potential. Kevin Gregg was a huge addition to the bullpen, which helped ease the departure of Kerry Wood. Whether he or Carlos Marmol will be the closer over the course of the year remains to be seen, but as for now he holds the job. Either way, the bullpen appears to be solid and should be able to hold down leads for the starting rotation while the offense remains strong with the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, and Aramis Ramirez. Also, Milton Bradley has been added to the mix and if he avoids the character issues that have plagued him in the past he should give the Cubs offense a huge boost. I don't know if they will win the World Series this year with 3 solid teams in the AL East, but I think winning the NL pennant for the first time since 1945 is a more than reachable goal and what I hope to see from this team in 2009. But yes, if they lose in the World Series to a team other than the Rays I will feel deep emotional pain still.
Last night the season got off to its official start with the defending champion Phillies taking on the Atlanta Braves. Though picked to finish fourth in the NL East by most, the Braves came up with the opening day victory behind a solid outing by their new ace Derek Lowe. The most interesting event of the night was center fielder Jordan Schafer hitting a home run in his first career at-bat against Brett Myers; Elijah Dukes did the same thing for the Rays 2 years ago against the Yankees, and I remember that event vividly.
The Phillies don't need to worry though, they have lost 4 straight opening day games so it's not like this is a new thing for them. They are still my pick to win the NL East though the Florida Marlins could easily come up and nip them.
The Marlins are a young team that are ready to blossom much like the Rays did last year. I think the Marlins will just barely miss the playoffs this year, but will by the team to watch for the next 5 years or so unless they decide to have another fire sale.
So the most wonderful time of the year has begun, and I am so excited!