Japanese Series Preview: Yankees @ Devil Rays

Opening Day is finally almost upon us, and that brings with it the very first Series Preview of 2004. The Yankees and Devil Rays are kicking off the year with a two-game series in Tokyo, Japan. The series has all sorts of fun twists, like A-Rod and Gary Sheffield's first regular-season at bats in pinstripes and the return of Godzilla to Japan. Oh yes, the Devil Rays will be playing too.

The Yankees, reeling from their World Series loss to the Marlins, went and reloaded for the 2004 season.  Only they reloaded with much bigger weaponry.  The Bombers brought in the best player in the game not named Bonds and changed his position to third base.  They signed the most productive outfielder not named Bonds in the game last year and suited him up for right field.  It's a wonder they didn't just go out and add Bonds to their list of new toys.  The pitching staff is completely revamped as well, and new #2 starter Kevin Brown will be pitching Wednesday's game.

Tampa Bay improved their team as well, and actually aren't the pushovers they used to be.  Former Yankee icon Tino Martinez is now their first baseman, Jose Cruz is patrolling the outfield and youngsters Aubrey Huff, Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli are only going to get better with time.  In a division other than the AL East, the D-Rays could put up 75 wins or so, if all things went their way.

So what should we expect from this series?  A lot of jet-lagged players for one.  The time difference might take it's toll on some players, particularly after they had to play games against Japanese teams on Monday and Tuesday.  Yankee OF and former Japanese Central League MVP Hideki Matsui will be cheered wildly by his hometown crowd at the Tokyo Dome.  Kenny Lofton will have the first at bat of the 2004 regular season. (*Correction: Derek Jeter will be leading off for the Yankees on Tuesday)  The Yankees will probably score a bunch of runs, the Devil Rays less so.  Should be a great series though, and let's ring in the 2004 year with a bang.

Yankees 2003 Record:  101-61
Devil Rays 2003 Record:  63-99

Probable Pitchers:

Tuesday:  Mike Mussina (17-8, 3.40) vs. Victor Zambrano (12-10, 4.21)
Our sources tell us that Moose is sitting on 199 wins and one more would give him 200 for his career.  Considering Mussina won his first seven starts of the 2003 season and is 11-3 against Tampa in 19 career starts, he's got a good shot at reaching his milestone on Tuesday.  Moose may not be the most talented pitcher on the Yankees anymore, but he's their ace to be sure. 

Zambrano led the Rays in victories last season, and he can be quite a good pitcher when he's on.  He struggles mightily with his command however, and with the way the Yankees are constructed, he'll probably end up walking more than a few batters.

Wednesday:  Kevin Brown (14-9, 2.39) vs. Jeremi Gonzalez (6-11, 3.91)
Brown is a rather important piece to the Yankees' 2004 puzzle.  His health will determine a good deal about how the Yanks manage.  Right now, he's healthy and has been having a good spring (2-0, 1.86 ERA in 19.1 innings and 14 strikeouts).  Brown was lights out last season as a Dodger and has to be better than Jeff Weaver was. 

Gonzalez is actually a rather talented pitcher, though you may not be able to tell from his ugly record last season.  On June 17 last year, however, he threw six one-hit innings against the Yanks allowing just a solo homerun to Jason Giambi.

Predictions and Prognostications:
It's tough to say, really.  On paper, the Yankees are a vastly superior team.  While New York is headed toward the top of the standings again, the Rays are heading toward the bottom of the ladder for the sixth straight year.  But anything can happen in an odd series like this one.  I'll predict a split though, with Brown taking the loss for the Yanks as Tampa's bats wake up for game two. 

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