NEW YORK — Darth Vader's theme music blared from the speakers at Yankee Stadium while the team worked out under sunny skies as if the Yankees needed a reminder that they are indeed still the "Evil Empire" and not the underdogs that they have been labeled.
"As crazy as that sounds, nobody seems to believe in us but us," opening-day starter CC Sabathia said Wednesday.
Sabathia and New York will get an early chance to prove to the rest of baseball that even though they lost out on free agent Cliff Lee and have a suspect rotation, the 2011 version of the Yankees is up to the challenge of recapturing the AL East.
Baseball is coming to the Bronx for the first time in March — weather permitting — when the Yankees open the season Thursday against formidable foes Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers, and New York is ready to prove its critics wrong.
"I think with the winter that we've had, we're all looking forward to this day," manager Joe Girardi said.
It's hard to find anything much odder in the Bronx than hearing the Yankees defend their chances — OK, knowing that a cobra has escaped from the Bronx Zoo and could be slithering around the rugged borough is pretty shocking.
"I told the guys, our guys, be the best that we can be," Girardi said.
On ESPN.com, 45 baseball pundits offered predictions for the season. All 45 picked the Boston Red Sox to win the AL East.
Rain and temperatures more typical of the postseason may put a damper on the festivities that will be a little more subdued this year after the Yankees failed to repeat as World Series champions last October, losing to Texas in the AL championship series.
"It's going to be perfect weather, 40s and rain. A good day to pitch," Tigers starting catcher Alex Avila said.
With Verlander on the mound for Detroit on a chilly day, Derek Jeter might have to wait until Game 2 Saturday to move closer to his 3,000th hit. He starts the season 74 from becoming the first player in pinstripes to reach the milestone.
"We're facing one of the best pitchers in baseball Day 1," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "We've got to be ready to go or it could be a long day for hitters."
Verlander spent his March preparing as if it were April, hoping to avoid the same type of start he had last year. The hard throwing right-hander was 1-2 with a 5.29 ERA in opening month of the season. He finished the year 18-9 with a 3.37 ERA.
"He figured out some things, some flaws that he had and some other ways to go about doing things that might help him," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "His concentration level improved on days that he doesn't have to pitch."
The first batter Verlander faces will not be Jeter, who slumped to a .270 average last year and eliminated his stride from his much-scrutinized swing. Girardi tapped left-handed hitting Brett Gardner to lead off against righties.
"The job that he did against right-handed pitching last season, he was second in on-base percentage against right-handers ... his ability to disrupt defenses, the pressure that he puts on pitching staffs, his ability to score runs we thought it was a good fit," said Girardi, who will use Jeter in the top spot against lefties.
Jeter is hitting .314 from the second hole and .313 in the leadoff spot for his career.
"It doesn't make a difference," Jeter said. "I've hit second more than I hit first, so who cares."
Curtis Granderson will return to the Yankees lineup Thursday. Out with a strained muscle since March 22, the center fielder had two doubles and an RBI in a minor league game in Tampa, Fla., and said he was hoping to fly to New York Wednesday night.
Leyland was set on his lineup, and wasn't feeling particularly interested in discussing the different looks his team could have this season, especially with second baseman Carlos Guillen starting the season on the disabled list.
"I don't know why everybody keeps making a big deal about lineups," Leyland said. "We've got the big boys in the middle, we've got some speed up top, we got a little power at the bottom. That's what it is."
NOTES: A.J. Burnett had a bad head cold and it was uncertain if he'll be able to make his start for New York on Saturday. ... Leyland said he will not talk about his contract status this season. In the last year of his two-year extension, Leyland said his father once gave him some advice, "If you go to work worrying about your job you don't have a job." ... Tigers RHP Joel Zumaya (right elbow) was placed on the 15-day DL along with Guillen (left knee) on Wednesday. They both remained in Florida for rehabilitation as planned. ... Detroit non-roster invitee RHP Enrique Gonzalez's contract was purchased from Triple-A Toledo and he was added to the Tigers roster. To make room on the 40-man roster the, Tigers outrighted INF Audy Ciriaco to Double-A Erie. ... The Yankees signed RHP Luis Ayala, RHP Bartolo Colon, RHP Freddy Garcia and C Gustavo Molina to major league contracts and added them to the Yankees' roster. Ayala is taking the place of LHP Pedro Feliciano, who was put on the 15-day disabled list along with C Francisco Cervelli. Both are retroactive to March 22.
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