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Pregame: Pirates return home to heightened expectations

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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Home Openers are civic holidays and, like all other holidays, special meaning is attached to them. Part of the what Opening Day signifies is the end of winter and the looking forward to more time enjoyably spent outdoors. With a brilliantly bright and warm sun soaking baseball's most stunning ballpark, this Opening Day promises to deliver the perfect setting for the yearly changing-of-the-season celebration that baseball uniquely provides.

Openers also signify hope and a fresh start. In the context of baseball, fans allow themselves of the guilty pleasure of imagining that the upcoming season will be, finally, the special one. However, what struck me walking to the park this morning and then listening to Clint Hurdle and players talk to the media is how expectation is replacing hope around here. Or, perhaps more accurately, the hope surrounding this team is of a different nature. It is the hope that everything will go as planned, and that realistic expectations will be met. While it is a lot of fun rooting for the gritty underdogs, that's not what the Pirates are anymore. They are a team from which much is expected, and with that comes a different type of nervous anticipation.

During this morning's press conference, Clint Hurdle was asked about the expectations that so-called experts have for this year's team and, displaying mid-season press conference form, he quipped that he wasn't sure what an expert was.

"First of all, experts?" Hurdle deadpanned.  "In school I learned that 'X' meant an unknown quantity and a 'spurt' is from a broken hose. So when you put X and spurt together, I'm not sure what that means."

After the laughter in the room died down, Hurdle continued: "We've earned our way. People don't predict things because you haven't played well. We don't listen to external noise. It has little value. Our expectations are our expectations. We hold ourselves to a very high level of execution, preparation and focus when we play. When we play like we're supposed to, people start talking about how you might have a good ball club."

While standing around in the clubhouse and moving from one press scrum to another, I asked a few members of the media who covered the team in Bradenton and on the road what the mood around the team was like given the high expectations. "Confident" was the word I heard repeated. Typically, one doesn't want to make too much of subjective evaluations of locker room moods, but when you hear it repeated several times from separate observers, it becomes worth noting.

I asked Jordy Mercer if he sensed a more confident mood this season than in the past. He said that that he thought there was, and that it's the the product of experiences from the last two seasons.

"Yeah, it's been noticeable since spring training," Mercer said. "Making the postseason the last two years definitely brings a lot confidence, and I think it's just continuing to build. From day one, we knew we were a good team and that we're as deep as we've ever been. And we've got a lot of guys with postseason experience now who are ready to take it to the next level."

Mercer said that last year they still had that underdog mentality because so many people counted them out and viewed them as regression candidates.

"We surprised a lot people," Mercer said. "So that instilled confidence in us that if we continue doing things the right way, we'll be successful."

Whether this team will meet the expectations they've created for themselves is obviously to be determined. There are some areas of concern and most of them are injury-related. Will this starting pitching staff that is filled with guys who battled injuries last year remain mostly intact? Perhaps most importantly, will Andrew McCutchen, who has piled up the seventh most plate appearances in the majors since 2010, be able to keep his aching knee from becoming something more serious?

But concerns aside, already the most interesting thing about this team and this year is how the fan base and team will respond to unfamiliar role of favorites. We'll get our first look of that in person over the next 11 days.