Oakland Athletics' Khris Davis, right, celebrates with third base coach Ron Washington after hitting a home run off San Francisco Giants' Matt Cain in the third inning of an exhibition baseball game Saturday, April 2, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Be
Ben Margot
April 03, 2016

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) - Chris Sale cherishes taking the ball on opening day. He lives for that moment, with the energy, the fanfare, hope abounding.

Last year, he didn't get that chance as White Sox manager Robin Ventura chose Jeff Samardzija. And Ventura said it wasn't necessarily a decision about how his ace was pitching, but rather a consideration of preserving Sale's health for the long haul after he'd been slowed during spring training by a fractured right foot.

It didn't keep Sale from setting a franchise record with 274 strikeouts during a lost season in which Chicago went 76-86.

Sale will take the ball in Monday night's opener against the Athletics in the Oakland Coliseum ready to build on his stellar year.

''It's probably the closest to a playoff atmosphere that I've ever been in,'' Sale said. ''Just the energy, I mean, it's like the first day of school. Everybody loves the first day of school, the first day of most things. It's exciting. The fans are into it. Players really enjoy it. Just a great day as a whole.''

Sale was supposed to face 26-year-old ace Sonny Gray, but the right-hander was scratched from his third straight opening day nod due to food poisoning.

Instead, Rich Hill will make his first career opening day start, making him the 10th A's pitcher to start the opener in the past 11 years. The 36-year-old has started just four games in the majors since 2009.

He went 2-1 with a 1.55 ERA in four starts last September for Boston. He signed a $6 million, one-year deal with Oakland this offseason.

Oakland finished last in the AL West at 68-94 after three straight playoff berths and isn't expected to do much better in 2016.

''Being home, that's when it's like, `Man, the season's really here,''' pitcher Chris Bassitt said.

Oh, the A's are used to this by now. Go ahead and list them in last place before the season even starts.

Oakland begins another season with low outside expectations and thoughts that the low-budget club will be at the bottom of the AL West and perhaps even the American League.

''We've always been a team that runs a little bit under the radar,'' manager Bob Melvin said. ''It certainly doesn't hurt. I'd hate to think that we can't perform with expectations, but this team's always been in past years a team that has not really at the beginning been expected to do much. We're fine with that chip.''

The A's are counting on their revamped bullpen to back the starters after Oakland went a majors-worst 19-35 in one-run games last year.

After Oakland concluded its preseason Bay Bridge Series by beating the San Francisco Giants 4-1 on Sunday, the opening day preparations began in earnest as the stencils were pulled out for the painting of the grass.

''When you open up at home and you finish up the last game at home here you can't help but look around and think about what it's going to look like on opening night,'' Melvin said.

Sale is the first of three straight left-handers Oakland gets to start the year, meaning Melvin might not be mixing and matching his lineups right away.

''We expect everybody to be ready,'' Melvin said. ''Again, we're built for 25 guys.''

No matter the expectations from anybody else.

''Maybe there's a little bit of chip on some guys' shoulders when you're not expected to do well,'' Melvin said. ''Internally, that's not the way we look at it. Pressure's part of the game. You have to be able to perform in pressure.''

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