12 teams usher in 2011 baseball season

On Thursday, 149 days since closer Brian Wilson got the final out against Texas, the San Francisco Giants will begin defence of their World Series championship on opening day 2011. There are five other games on the schedule, including Toronto-born Joey Votto and the Cincinnati Reds hosting Milwaukee.

Giants open defence of World Series title, while Votto and Reds host Brewers

It was a Wednesday with seemingly less baseball fever in major league cities like Cincinnati, Toronto and Philadelphia.

A steady snowfall and cold temperatures at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati kept the hometown Reds and Brewers inside for workouts, while sports fans in Toronto were still clinging to the slim playoff hopes for hockey's Maple Leafs.

In Philadelphia, Phillies fans were staring at a first half, and perhaps entire season, without five-time all-star second baseman in the lineup because of chronic knee pain.

But the forecast looks better for Thursday — well, at least in Cincinnati — where clouds and temperatures around 5 C will greet the Reds' Toronto-born first baseman Joey Votto for a 2:10 p.m. ET opening day start.

There are five other games scheduled, kicking off with Atlanta at Washington and Detroit visiting the New York Yankees, both 1:05 p.m. ET starts. Rounding out the schedule is the Los Angeles Angels at Kansas City (4:10 p.m.), San Diego at St. Louis (4:15 p.m.) and the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants at the Los Angeles Dodgers (8 p.m.).

"Obviously, [opening against the Dodgers] matters a lot to the fans, and it's a big rivalry between us and them," Giants' opening day starter Tim Lincecum told reporters Wednesday. "But whether opening day is against them or in Houston, it's still opening day. You want to do well regardless."

It's the first Thursday opening day since 1976 and the first to begin on a day other than Sunday or Monday in 13 years.

It's been 149 days since Giants closer Brian Wilson threw the last pitch to Texas outfielder Nelson Cruz to cement a 3-1 win and bring San Francisco its first World Series title in 54 years.

Title defence

The Giants, who have returned almost the identical lineup as that Nov. 1 night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, begin their quest to become the first repeat champion since the 1998-2000 Yankees, and first in the National League since the 1975-76 Reds.

Votto and his Cincinnati teammates will attempt to recover from last year's three-game sweep at the hands of Philadelphia in an NL Division Series, the first time since 1995 the Reds had competed in the post-season.

"We can be a much better team, I think," said Votto, who beat out St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols for NL MVP honours. Cincinnati won the NL Central by five games over St. Louis with a 91-71 record.

"It all starts and ends with the pitching staff, but they're a young group of guys also. I notice huge leaps between off-seasons.

"You can step back, think about the mistakes you've made and how you want to improve and adjust your training. You experience life lessons, and it pays off on the field."

In Washington, the visiting Braves will open a season for the first time since '89 with someone other than the retired Bobby Cox as manager as former Florida Marlins skipper Fredi Gonzalez will patrol the dugout.

The remaining nine season openers are scheduled for Friday as part of an 11-game slate that includes the Toronto Blue Jays hosting Canadian first baseman Justin Morneau and the Minnesota Twins at 7:07 p.m. before a soldout crowd at Rogers Centre.

Several major leaguers could reach milestones in 2011 including shortstop Derek Jeter, who needs 74 hits to become the first Yankees player and 28th ever to have 3,000 hits.

"I'll try to enjoy it, I guess," Jeter said of his pursuit. "I think in the past I've pretty much tried to block it out, and not pay attention to it. For myself, I'll appreciate the journey and have fun with it."

The others approaching milestones include:

  • Jim Thome, designated hitter, Minnesota: The six-foot-three, 250-pounder is 11 home runs shy of becoming the eighth player to join the 600 club. Barry Bonds (762), Henry Aaron (755), Babe Ruth (714), Willie Mays (660), Ken Griffey Jr. (630), Alex Rodriguez (613) and Sammy Sosa (609) are the others.
  • Ichiro Suzuki, outfielder, Seattle: The speedy Ichiro guns for an unprecedented 11th season with 200-plus hits. He shares the record with Ty Cobb and Pete Rose.
  • Mariano Rivera, relief pitcher, NY Yankees: If he can match last season's 41 saves, Rivera he would join the retired Trevor Hoffman as the only closers with 600 career saves. Hoffman's all-time mark is 601.