The Baltimore Orioles start a new baseball season the same way they ended the last one: with a game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
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Opening day at Camden Yards on Monday features a matchup between AL East rivals with high hopes of making a return trip to the post-season.
"Anytime you play games in the division, those are the games that matter," said Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman, who will make his first opening day start.
When Toronto and Baltimore met in the AL wild-card game last October, the stakes were significantly higher. The winner advanced in the playoffs, the loser went home.
Toronto prevailed when Edwin Encarnacion hit a three-run homer off Ubaldo Jimenez in the 11th inning.
"It hurt. It hurt for a while," shortstop J.J. Hardy said Sunday. "As long as baseball was being played last year, it was crossing all our minds."
The Orioles insist they've put that game behind them. Their focus is solely on this season, and it all begins with a matchup against a team they don't like but certainly respect.
"Toronto's a good club," manager Buck Showalter said. "We know they're going to be in contention, so it's a good test for us early."
'Could have been the other guys'
Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.48 ERA in 29 starts last year) will start on the mound for the Blue Jays.
"It could've been any one of the other guys. That's how deep we are," Estrada said. "I say they basically had a hat and they just pulled my name out. It just happened to be my turn."
Toronto and Baltimore both finished 89-73 last year, but the Blue Jays hosted the wild-card game because they won the season series 10-9. That's how evenly matched these teams are.
And now, after a particularly long spring training, it's time to get back at it.
"It's almost like a Broadway play. You do all these rehearsals and then it's opening," Showalter said. "There are a lot of different acts to a season, and [Monday] starts act one."
Just like on Broadway, sometimes the understudy gets a chance to perform. Gausman (9-12, 3.61 ERA in 2016) was selected to start the opener because staff ace Chris Tillman has a sore shoulder and will start the season on the disabled list.
"I'm going to try to set the tone and just kind of feed off the environment," Gausman said. "It's obviously going to be rocking."
A full house is expected when the Orioles begin their 25th season at Camden Yards. Though there will be 161 games to follow, this one is a bit more special than most.
"It always seems like a playoff atmosphere on the first day," Hardy said.
In mapping out his perfect scenario, Showalter has this game ending differently than that wild-card matchup.
"I just want the weather to be good, the beer to be cold, the baseball to be good, everybody has a great time, the Orioles win and they want to come back," he said. "In that order."