San Francisco Giants' Madison Bumgarner works against the Los Angeles Angels in the first inning of a spring training exhibition baseball game Sunday, March 22, 2015, in Scottsdale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot
March 26, 2015

Even before Max Scherzer, Bryce Harper and the rest of the ramped-up Washington Nationals hit the field for their first full-squad workout at spring training, they got the message.

There it was, printed across the top of a practice schedule posted in the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium. Simple and direct, from manager Matt Williams.

''The road to the World Series begins today.''

A challenge? A prediction? A statement?

Or, perhaps, a rally cry from Wrigley Field to Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium. Because as Major League Baseball launches speed-up rules this year to cut the length of games, a lot of teams will be on the clock when the season begins Sunday night.

Throw in the return of Alex Rodriguez from a drug suspension, the possible reinstatement of Pete Rose - imagine the roar he'd get at the All-Star Game in Cincinnati - and fresh ideas pitched by new Commissioner Rob Manfred, and it's a full plate going into opening day.

''There are so many plotlines unfolding, especially at the start of the year. It's like a very meaty novel - people want to see how it's going to turn out,'' Toronto Blue Jays sage R.A. Dickey said.

Fans are in a hurry to take their seats. They just might need a little extra time at the ballparks to get through the metal detectors that are of enhanced security.

Chicago Cubs newcomer Jon Lester will throw the first pitch of the season, a Sunday night special against St. Louis.

Hope springs eternal all over, and now there's a special kind of Chicago Hope. Credit that to a key free agent - wily, ol' manager Joe Maddon.

The Cubs haven't won the crown since 1908, before Wrigley was built. As the fabled ballpark gets a renovation that includes a giant, bright video board, the franchise is being refurbished, too.

''I always feel good vibes in baseball,'' Maddon said.

The feeling is mutual across the big leagues. From Cuba to Canada, from the Bay Area to the snow-besieged Northeast, great expectations abound.

Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez and the remade Boston Red Sox; Nelson Cruz with the run-starved Seattle Mariners; Jimmy Rollins and the Los Angeles Dodgers, with their $270 million payroll.

Hey, if Kansas City can come so close in the World Series - should Alex Gordon have tried to score in Game 7? - and Pittsburgh can blossom into a perennial playoff contender, then any club truly can reverse its fortunes.

''You look at what the Royals and Pirates have done,'' Yankees veteran Carlos Beltran said. ''The success they've had, other teams want to emulate that. They inspired a lot of people to think, `This could be us.' The Cubs, the Mets, the White Sox, more. Everybody has a chance.''

Count the Houston Astros in there. Not far removed from steady 100-loss seasons, they're on the rise.

''The game of baseball is such an up and down game,'' Astros catcher Jason Castro. ''That's why optimism plays such a role.''

No wonder Harper, after hearing his Nats had added Scherzer to their robust rotation, said he started laughing and thought: ''Where's my ring?''

Toss the Angels, the Cardinals, the Padres, the Indians, the Tigers and champion Giants and a few more into the mix, along with Yasmany Tomas and plenty of Cuban prospects.

''You have more young talent now, elite talent. More than I've ever seen from the mound,'' Dickey said. ''That's why so many teams are hopeful, because youth is hopeful.''

So start with this: With Derek Jeter gone, who will reign as the face of the majors? Could be Andrew McCutchen, despite trimming his trademark dreadlocks. Or $325 million man Giancarlo Stanton or unanimous MVP Mike Trout or King Felix or ace Clayton Kershaw, provided he can overcome his October struggles.

Maybe the main man on Madison Avenue will be the MadBum himself, Madison Bumgarner. That is, if his long left arm holds up after he threw 270 innings while becoming the World Series MVP and leading San Francisco to its third title in five years.

The Giants get a boost with the return of injured pitcher Matt Cain. That's a common theme, guys named Matt coming back from health woes - Harvey, Wieters, Moore. Plus, Prince Fielder, Jose Fernandez and Manny Machado are on the mend.

Several stars weren't so lucky in spring training. Pitchers Yu Darvish, Zack Wheeler, Marcus Stroman and Tim Collins already are lost for the season, Cliff Lee and Justin Verlander are ailing, and Kershaw is OK after being hit in the face by a line drive.

Giants sparkplug Hunter Pence is out for a while, his forearm broken by an errant pitch. Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar missed 10 days and was hurt in a much different fashion - he strained his side when he sneezed.

''I was very upset that it got out and it became as big of a story as it was,'' Pillar said.

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