Archer, Rays eye bounce-back year, begin against Yankees

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer during the first inning. AP Photo

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Chris Archer is excited by an opportunity for another fresh start.

Tampa Bay’s opening-day pitcher went from first-time All-Star in 2015 to 19-game loser last year. Now, he looks to set the tone for a bounce-back year when the Rays begin anew Sunday against the New York Yankees in the first game of the major league season.

“At the beginning of the season, there’s always optimism,” the 28-year-old right-hander said, looking forward to his third consecutive opening day assignment.

“It’s baseball, anything can happen. That’s the beauty of this game,” Archer said. “And I think if we stay healthy and just play our game we have a chance to succeed, just like anybody else.”

The Yankees, sporting a more youthful lineup as they try to improve on last year’s fourth-place finish in the rugged AL East, counter with right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who’s 6-0 with a 2.82 ERA in eight career starts against Tampa Bay.

With a lineup likely to feature Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Ronald Torreyes and Aaron Judge, New York is entering a season with at least four players under the age of 25 on the field for the first time since 1932.

“I think it’s just important to get off to a good start because we’re in a tough division. We had four teams that finished over .500. You don’t really want to dig yourself a hole, so, I think it’s important,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

“I know we talk about the youth, but the veterans have to do their jobs. To me, that is a huge key,” Girardi added. “If all the veteran players we have out there go out and do their job, we’re going to be in good shape.”

Archer likes what the Rays, who’ve missed the playoffs the past three years, have done to try to get better, too.

Tampa Bay, coming off a last-place finish that was its worst in nine years, focused this winter on bolstering a shoddy bullpen and improving a leaky defense that contributed to last season’s pitching woes.

But with several key players — among them shortstop Matt Duffy, reliever Brad Boxberger and offseason acquisitions Wilson Ramos, Colby Rasmus and Shawn Tolleson — headed for disabled list, it’s imperative that a young starting rotation led by Archer raise its performance.

“I think we’re super talented,” Archer said. “We need to remain healthy, and we have a few guys who need to get healthy, and that’ll happen in due time. But with our ability to pitch, the upgrades we’ve made … I’m really looking forward to it.”

Tanaka, also making his third consecutive opening-day start, compiled a major league-best 0.38 ERA in spring training.

He also has a history of success against the Rays at Tropicana Field, where he’s won all three of his career starts with a 1.80 ERA.

“I’m ready,” the Japanese pitcher told reporters in English during New York’s workout in the Rays ballpark on Saturday.

“It’s a special day for baseball, the very first game of the season,” Tanaka added through a translator. “I think it’s an exciting day for the organization and for the fans, and for myself as well.”

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