Anxious Yankees have butterflies on Opening Day

It was at Tropicana Field last Sept. 28 that the Yankees played a part in one of the most memorable closing games in baseball history, with Evan Longoria blasting a walk-off home run facing Scott Proctor in the 12th inning to lift the Rays to a Wild Card-clinching 8-7 victory, just minutes after the Orioles shattered the Red Sox’s playoff hopes with a victory at Camden Yards.

It’s impossible not to look out at the artificial turf here and think of that amazing night — Dan Johnson’s homer, Mark Teixeira’s grand slam earlier in the evening, and the Yankees’ carousel of 11 pitchers who showed differing levels of effectiveness. The Yankees wouldn’t have guessed their season was heading for an early end that night, as they finished a campaign with 97 wins and the American League East title, but they’re ready to try to avenge those losses now.

“I’m very anxious,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I think you look forward to this day from the day we get to Spring Training. I’ve actually been looking forward to it since last year. We had a good Spring Training. I was happy with it. We got everything done we needed to. Now it’s time to play for real.”

Opening Day starts should be old hat by now for CC Sabathia, who will be making his ninth career Opening Day start and his fourth in a Yankees uniform, but the left-handed ace said he still feels the same raw emotions leading into the appearance.

“I still get butterflies before pretty much every game, but especially Opening Day,” Sabathia said. “It’s a brand new season and you want to start the season off right. It’s an honor to be able to go out there and take the ball.”

The Yankees were sporting t-shirts in the clubhouse before Friday’s game with the inspirational message “Mind, Heart, Guts” on the back, with the front reading, “Yankees 1°.” The shirts were the brainchild of director of mental conditioning Chad Bohling, unifying the team even without their game uniforms on. It’s not the type of clubhouse Sabathia necessarily envisioned in 2008, when GM Brian Cashman told him the team was broken and needed his presence.

“The perception is that it’s not a close clubhouse, that it’s not a place where guys want to go,” Sabathia said. “You hear that as a player. That’s something I was really concerned about, and coming from Cleveland, where I had grown up with all these guys, and being so close to those guys in Milwaukee over a two-month span, it was really something that was important to me, making sure the clubhouse was good.”

Players like Sabathia, along with newcomers like Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira, seem to have blended seamlessly with an old guard that features Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez and — soon — Andy Pettitte. No wonder Cashman ranks Sabathia’s deal among the best he has ever presented to a starting pitcher, right alongside Mike Mussina’s contract.

“I know what our clubhouse is, and I know how much fun we have,” Sabathia said, “and what it means to us to be able to root for each other, and pull for each other and have fun. I don’t really worry about it anymore.”

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