Gone is the element of surprise, but the upbeat attitude remains.
Few pick Florida to become the first National League team to repeat as champion since Cincinnati in 1975-76. Yet Marlins manager Jack McKeon, in his first full season since 2000, is paying the naysayers no mind.
“What’s to pick?” McKeon said. “I watch `The Bachelor’ and `The Bachelorette’ and pick the winner, and they always get knocked out. It’s just a guessing game.”
Last season, he encouraged a stronger work ethic and reminded players to enjoy themselves.
“Jack said, `Hey, go out there and have fun,”’ said Jeff Conine, acquired last August from Baltimore. “We’re playing a game for a living. It should be fun. A lot of times you lose sight of that fact and put too much pressure on yourself.”
In 1998, the year after the Marlins won their first world title, they lost 108 games, mostly because then-owner Wayne Huizenga slashed payroll and got rid of nearly every impact player.
Florida’s rotation boasts World Series MVP Josh Beckett and NL Rookie of the Year Dontrelle Willis. Florida hopes to have right-hander A.J. Burnett, who is still working his way back from elbow surgery, back by the All-Star break.
Pierre broke a team record with 204 hits and led the majors with 65 stolen bases last season. He was the toughest hitter in the majors to strike out, fanning just 35 times in 746 plate appearances.
“He really deserves a lot of the credit,” Willis said of Pierre. “He energized us all season, and we all know why. He works hard on and off the field.”
The Expos have finished with winning records in the two seasons since manager Frank Robinson was hired by commissioner Bud Selig. Montreal had been coming off five straight losing seasons, including four straight with at least 94 losses.
However, they are going into 2004 without their best offensive player, Vladimir Guerrero, and best pitcher, Javier Vazquez. Guerrero, a career .323 hitter who averaged 29 home runs and 88 RBIs during his eight years in Montreal, signed with Anaheim as a free agent.
The league office will be paying close attention to this game because of the hostility that developed between the teams during spring training.
The Marlins’ Lowell has been hit by pitches three times in his last three games against the Expos, including two last week.
Right-hander Josh Karp hit Lowell in the thigh in the first inning last Tuesday and then in the left hand in the third. The second one caused benches and bullpens to clear, but no punches were thrown.
“We have made the league very aware that we’re not going to sit back and let our players continue to be subject to injury by on-purpose fastballs up and around the chest and head areas,” Marlins president David Samson said. “It is the height of unprofessionalism. It is the exact example of how baseball should not be played.”
2003 STANDINGS: Expos - 4th place, 18 GB, NL East. Marlins - 2nd place, 10 GB, NL East.
EXPOS PROBABLE STARTER: Livan Hernandez (15-10, 3.20 ERA). The right-hander, who will be making his fourth opening day start, pitched a league-high 233 1-3 innings last season and had 178 strikeouts. He is 6-3 with a 2.47 ERA in 11 career starts against the Marlins.
MARLINS PROBABLE STARTER: Beckett (9-8, 3.04 ERA). Beckett was 2-2 with a 2.11 ERA in the postseason, giving up 21 hits and striking out 47 in 42 2-3 innings. The 23-year-old right-hander is 3-1 with a 2.20 ERA lifetime against Montreal.
2003 OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Expos - Guerrero, .330 avg. and 25 HRs; Orlando Cabrera, 80 RBIs, 95 runs and 24 SBs. Marlins - Castillo, .314 avg.; Lowell, 32 HR and 105 RBIs; Pierre, 100 runs and 65 SBs.
2003 SEASON SERIES: Marlins, 13-6.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Expos - RHP Hernandez led the Marlins to the World Series championship in 1997, going 4-0 in the postseason, and was the MVP of both the NLCS and World Series. … OF Peter Bergeron hit .371 with one HR and seven RBIs this spring. … Montreal concluded spring training with a 19-11-1 record. Marlins - 3B Lowell is 10-for-31 (.323) with one home run and five RBIs in his career against Hernandez. … OF Pierre, who missed four games after dislocating his right pinkie on March 21 while sliding headfirst, was 6-of-7 on stolen base attempts during spring training. … OF Conine could miss Tuesday’s season opener against Montreal because of a sinus infection. He sat out the last four spring training games and didn’t play in an exhibition game Sunday against Triple-A Albuquerque.
2003 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Expos - 31-50 on the road; Marlins - 53-28 at home.
INJURIES: Expos - INF Scott Hodges (quadriceps), 15-day DL; 1B Nick Johnson (back), 15-day DL; RHP Tony Armas Jr. (shoulder), 15-day DL; LHP Joey Eischen (elbow), 15-day DL; RHP Dan Smith (shoulder), 60-day DL. Marlins - RHP Burnett (elbow), 15-day DL; RHP Tim Spooneybarger (elbow), 60-day DL.