The Boston Red Sox won't have the luxury of easing into a new season as defending World Series champions.
Boston will be tested right off the bat Monday, opening on the road against the improved Baltimore Orioles and 16-game winner Chris Tillman. The Orioles were the only team in the AL East with a winning record (11-8) against the Red Sox last season, and Baltimore expects to be even better in 2014.
"This is always a challenge to come into Baltimore, or playing them in Fenway," Red Sox manager John Farrell said Sunday. "This is a very good team. We've had a chance to see their regular lineup in spring training, and it's deep and powerful. Just another example of how difficult this division can be. This will be a good test for us right out of the gate."
It's also a barometer of sorts for the Orioles, who missed the postseason in 2013. A sellout crowd will fill Camden Yards to see how Baltimore stacks up against the defending champs.
"We wouldn't have it any other way," center fielder Adam Jones said.
Baltimore recently added pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, who will start Wednesday night, and slugger Nelson Cruz joins a lineup that led the majors in home runs last season.
"One through nine, obviously very powerful. A lot like the rest of the East," said Boston left-hander Jon Lester, who will make his fourth consecutive opening day start. "One of the biggest things with this club is you try to keep them in the ballpark as best you can. That's where they do a lot of their damage."
A year ago, Lester got the win as the Red Sox thumped the New York Yankees 8-2 in the season opener. It was an uplifting start for a team coming off a last-place finish, and now Lester hopes to provide a similar boost for a squad opening defense of its title.
"It's like we talked about last year during the playoffs - you want to set the tone for the rest of the guys," said Lester, who is 15-3 lifetime against Baltimore. "You don't want to be that weak link in the chain. You want to go out there and get these guys off on the right foot."
Since beating St. Louis in the World Series, the Red Sox lost center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and shortstop Stephen Drew in free agency. It's also quite possible that right fielder Shane Victorino will miss the opener with a strained right hamstring. Victorino returned to Boston on Sunday for an MRI and will undergo an exam Monday morning before the team decides whether to put him on the disabled list to start the season.
Center fielder Grady Sizemore and catcher A.J. Pierzynski will make their debuts with the Red Sox, further proof that this season is not to be confused with 2013.
"We recognize fully that last year is behind us, and everyone is looking forward to (Monday) and beyond," Farrell said. "Shane's situation is going to be one of the challenges thrown our way. We don't know what's going to come up against us. As long as we remain resilient and face those challenges as we did a year ago - as a team - I feel like we'll be in a very good place as we go through this journey in 2014."
The Orioles might have to play Monday without leadoff hitter Nick Markakis, who has been bothered by a sore neck.
"I've got two lineups - one with him in it, one without him in it," manager Buck Showalter said.
Showalter scoffed at the notion that the Orioles could make a statement by beating the reigning champs. And since Baltimore usually sells out the opener and regularly draws huge crowds against Boston, he wondered why someone scheduled the Red Sox to launch the season.
"Statements are made at the end of 162 games," Showalter said. "And no, I don't know why we're wasting a good gate on opening day."