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03/28/08 10:00 AM ET

Tribe eyes fast start in tough AL Central

Defending division champs enter season as underdogs

As far as season-opening omens are concerned, one can scarcely do better than Grady Sizemore did on Opening Day in '07.

Coming off a miserable Spring Training at the plate, Sizemore swatted Sox starter Jose Contreras' second pitch of the ballgame over the right-field wall at U.S. Cellular Field for a leadoff home run.

He had no idea he had just unwittingly set the tone for a special season for the Tribe.

"After a .111 spring," Sizemore recalled with a smile, "it was more of a feeling of relief than anything."

The Indians will be relieved if they can even play Monday's 3:05 p.m. ET season and home opener against the White Sox at Progressive Field without the aid of snow shovels. Whoever decided to schedule an outdoor ballgame in Cleveland on the last day of March was obviously taunting Mother Nature, especially in light of the blizzard that turned last year's home opener into an aborted mess.

But the Tribe need look no further than its past three Opening Days -- all against the White Sox -- for evidence of how the first game can actually prove to be a sign of things to come.

In 2005, Jake Westbrook turned in a stellar outing but got no support from his offense in a 1-0 loss. That close defeat would be one of many to haunt the Indians in a season that saw them fall two games shy of the American League Wild Card.

In 2006, on a miserable, rain-soaked Sunday night in Chicago, C.C. Sabathia strained his oblique, the bullpen was brutal and the infield defense was sloppy in a 10-4 loss. The season played out in similar fashion, as the Indians' hopes of contending in the AL Central division were dashed by the All-Star break.

And in 2007, Sizemore's first-swing swat and Sabathia's solid start paved the way for a truly entertaining year, in which the Indians won their first AL Central title in six years.

Repeating as Central champs is the '08 club's focus. Setting an Opening Day tone is not.

Still, an early victory never hurt anybody.

"It's always good to get off on the right foot with a win and to be playing well right away," third baseman Casey Blake said. "I suppose you can set a tone in the first couple weeks or so."

In some ways, the pressure to repeat has been relieved for the Indians by the moves the Tigers made this offseason. Despite having the AL Central title banner hanging at Progressive Field, the Indians will enter this year as underdogs in the estimation of many onlookers.

They'll also enter the year enjoying remarkable familiarity with each other. The Indians took the rare opportunity in professional sports to return virtually their entire team, the one that walked off the field after a Game 7 loss to the Red Sox in last year's AL Championship Series.

For all its success last season, this is not a group that takes much pleasure in patting itself on the back. Nor is it a team dwelling too much on the 3-1 series lead they squandered away in the ALCS.

Rather, the talk in the clubhouse throughout spring camp was about the challenges that lie ahead.

That's by design, of course, because manager Eric Wedge has drilled into his players' heads the idea that it will take more work to repeat than it did to win in the first place.

"There isn't anything beyond the regular season," Wedge said, "unless we take care of business in the regular season."

Wedge said he likes the "quiet confidence" he's seen from this team. Reliever Rafael Betancourt said taking that confidence into the season is what's most important.

"We have to bring a confidence at the beginning," Betancourt said. "You have to put all your intensity into the season from the beginning. It has to be there from day one."

While the past few openers have provided omens, don't read too much into the outcome of Monday's game.

Then again, if Sizemore goes deep in his first at-bat, that's not exactly a negative sign.

"If I don't hit one," he said with a smile, "I hope no one will hold it against me."

Pitching matchup
CLE: LHP C.C. Sabathia (19-7, 3.21 ERA in 2007)
Sabathia's contract status (he's eligible for free agency after '08) will be a hot topic all season, but his main focus will be on building off his first Cy Young season.

CWS: LHP Mark Buehrle (10-9, 3.63 ERA)
Buehrle has been a workhorse for the Sox, compiling 1,577 innings since 2001 -- the second-most in the Majors in that span. Sabathia is his nemesis. In his past four starts opposite C.C., Buehrle is 0-2 with a 6.08 ERA, allowing 16 earned runs and 31 hits over 23 2/3 innings.

Tribe Tidbits
This will be the earliest home opener in club history and the first season opener at home since 2001. ... Monday's game will mark the beginning of a new era, as this will be the first game in the newly named Progressive Field. Progressive bought the naming rights to the former Jacobs Field over the offseason, partnering with the Tribe on a 16-year commitment. ... The Indians are 56-51 all-time on Opening Day.

On the Internet
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• WKYC Channel 3

On radio
• WTAM 1100

Up next
• Tuesday: Off-day
• Wednesday: Indians (Fausto Carmona, 19-8, 3.06) vs. White Sox (Javier Vazquez, 15-8, 3.74), 7:05 p.m. ET
• Thursday: Indians (Jake Westbrook, 6-9, 4.32) vs. White Sox (John Danks, 6-13, 5.50), 12:05 p.m. ET

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.