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Rays are ready for Yankees; Division rivals to meet in opener

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The budget-minded Tampa Bay Rays welcome the challenge of competing against the big-spending New York Yankees.

The AL East rivals open the season at Tropicana Field today (3 p.m., YES, Radio 1230 AM), and both clubs say that's not a moment too soon to start getting a feel for how they stack up against each other.

Rays manager Joe Maddon believes a tough April schedule will benefit his team in the long run. Yankees skipper Joe Girardi likes the idea of getting an early barometer on his defending division champions, too.

Tampa Bay plays 16 of its first 22 games against teams expected to challenge for postseason berths. The Yankees play 15 games against likely contenders during the same stretch.

"You say you don't make too much out of one game, that some months are going to be tougher than other months," Girardi said, conceding it won't be easygoing facing Tampa Bay, Boston, Texas, Detroit and the Los Angeles Angels early on. "You don't want to make too much out of the first month. But it is a great measuring stick for where we're at, that's for sure."

The Rays begin the most anticipated season in franchise history, confident they have what it takes to continue to hold their own against the Yankees and Red Sox, whose monumental September collapse helped Tampa Bay earn a wild-card playoff spot on the final night of last season.

They did it by rallying from a 7-0, eighth-inning deficit to beat the Yankees, 8-7, in 12 innings.

Rays opening day starter James Shields said it's only fitting that the new season begins at home against the same opponent.

"We wouldn't want it any other way," Shields, a first-time All-Star in 2011, said. "We're fired up, ready to go."

So is New York, which has made the playoffs 16 of the past 17 seasons, 12 times as division champions.

The Yankees retooled their pitching rotation, record-setting closer Mariano Rivera is back for an 18th season and figure to continue to score runs in a bunches with a lineup built around Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, who's healthy again after only appearing in 99 games while batting .276 with 16 homers and 62 RBIs last season.

"When I look at the depth that we have and the health of our players right now, I feel really good about it," Girardi said.

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