CINCINNATI — Getting back at the critics is what it's all about in sports these days. It's about playing with a chip on your shoulder, about disproving the doubters, silencing the skeptics, proving people wrong.
That is unless you are the Cincinnati Reds.
Then you're the team that must prove people right.
"You don't play on predictions," warned Manager Dusty Baker on Monday, just before his defending National League Central Division champs took the field for the season opener against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
It wasn't the greatest of openers, unless you like free baseball. The two squads had each scored one run through 12 innings before the Angels' Chris Iannetta, who had homered earlier, banged a two-run single for a 3-1 win.
Plus, Reds left fielder Ryan Ludwick suffered a dislocated right shoulder in the third inning when sliding headfirst into third base.
"Disheartening," Baker called it.
Being the first game, however, it was just one game in 162. And many prognosticators have fallen all over themselves anointing the Reds the NL team to beat in 2013, expecting Cincinnati to take that next step after losing in the divisional series to ultimate World Series champ San Francisco a year ago.
But then, as Brandon Phillips made clear, the Reds expect that, too.
"Unfinished business, something I came up with on twitter," said the second baseman. "I think we owe it to the city to bring a championship back to Cincinnati."
"I don't think expectations for ourselves could be higher than they are right now," right fielder Jay Bruce said.
"We know we have the team on paper to win it," shortstop Zack Cozart said. "And, barring our health, we think we should win it. But we have to prove it on the field."
(No sooner had Cozart mentioned health than Ludwick was heading to the dugout holding his shoulder.)
OK, but the Reds failed to reach even the league championship series, much less the World Series last year.
How might they be better this year?
"We've gained experience," Bruce said. "We're better offensively at the top of the order with (Shin-Soo) Choo. We have a healthy Joey (Votto)."
On cue, Choo, the team's new leadoff hitter and center fielder, reached base his first two times to the plate — hit-by-pitch and double. That's a stark contrast from last season when the Reds' leadoff hitters posted a .208 batting average and a .254 on-base percentage, both of which are not good.
"I think we've improved certain areas," Phillips said. "I think we've learned from the mistakes we made last year. We've added Choo. So yeah, I can say we are better than last year."
There is one other change. Scott Rolen has hung up his spikes, at least temporarily. Todd Frazier has assumed all responsibilities at third base. This is the same Todd Frazier who didn't make the opening-day roster a year ago.
"To play opening day is special," Frazier said Monday. "Just another thing to cross off my bucket list, I guess."
Truth be told, it was a bit of an odd opening day. The opponent was an American League team in the Angels, a move necessitated by MLB going to an odd number of teams in each league. A very good American League team.
"Opening Day is Opening Day no matter who you're playing," Baker said. "They didn't play well in the spring. We didn't play well in the spring. It's a little different in that, I was talking to (Angels Manager Mike) Scioscia and he was saying they go from here to playing the Rangers. We've got to go play St. Louis."
"To tell you the truth, I'm glad we're playing these types of teams early in the season," Phillips said. "It should show you what kind of team you are now."
Monday's long loss notwithstanding, most everyone is expecting a very good team.
"There are no quick answers," Baker said. "It takes the course of the season to get the answers."
John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com