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Hochevar reflects on final Spring Training start

As the Royals continue what they hope is their ascension back to contention, they host a team to begin 2011 that for most of the last decade has resided on the elite level they seek.

The Angels come to town following their first sub-.500 season since 2003, but that down year represented a blip on a recent history that had seen them win five AL West titles in six years, and they intend to contend again this year.

The Royals have a long way to go to establish a resume like that, but with a host of young players maturing into the Major Leagues, the start of the 2011 season brings optimism for the future in Kansas City.

"I think we've got enough talent, quality talent, and the right group of players in the mix that is going to take Kansas City to the World Series," manager Ned Yost said this spring. "When that time is, I don't know. I just try to take 25 guys and do the best we can do with them every single day."

Expectations for both clubs will start to unfold on Thursday at 3:10 p.m. CT, when Luke Hochevar takes the mound for the Royals against the Angels' Jered Weaver on Opening Day.

That the Royals' first day wouldn't include Zack Greinke, their ace of the last few years, is old news months after his trade to Milwaukee, where he actually won't be ready for Opening Day with a rib injury. What's new is that Hochevar, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft, has stepped up to take the mantle of ace.

"I'm going to lock horns with a lot of great pitchers," Hochevar said. "What more could you want? You want to compete against the best, and to get better you have to, so I'm looking forward to it."

His first Opening Day assignment comes against Weaver, who will be making his third Opening Day start at the top of a deep, veteran rotation the Angels have heading into 2011. In his two previous Opening Day starts, Weaver lost, 3-2, in 2008 at Minnesota and then beat the Twins, 6-3, last year.

"It's a cool thing," Weaver said. "Obviously, I was able to do it [before]. I don't take it as being more special than being one of five [starters]. I don't build it up too much."

The starting rotation is among the strengths the Angels feel they have heading into the season. While they're still awaiting the healthy return of Kendrys Morales, manager Mike Scioscia believes their offense should be up a notch from last year, with the addition of Vernon Wells to the outfield and holdover players primed for better seasons.

"Even without Kendrys, our lineup is better," Scioscia said. "Hopefully, we will move forward and build on that."

Angels: Rotation will wait for Pineiro
With two off-days in the first full week of the regular season, the Angels will be able to wait to use a fifth starter until they have one. Joel Pineiro, who will begin the season on the disabled list, can return for the home opener on April 8 against the Toronto Blue Jays, so that works out for the roster. "With the off-days, we will stay at a four-man rotation until Joel folds in," said Scioscia. ... Wells, acquired from the Blue Jays over the winter, suffered a hamstring strain during the final week of Spring Training. But after taking a few days off, he's expected to be part of the Opening Day lineup. ... Closer Fernando Rodney, who struggled after assuming the closing duties late in 2010, had mostly good outings this spring and a couple of rocky ones. He went back-to-back days late in spring and is ready to go. "Some things got away from him, but Fernando's where he needs to be," Scioscia said after his final outing. In eight appearances covering 7 1/3 innings, Rodney allowed 12 hits and five walks, while striking out eight hitters with a 3.68 ERA. He was 14-for-21 in save attempts last year.

Royals: Powerful spring for Ka'aihue
With seven homers and 20 RBIs, Kila Ka'aihue put together just the kind of spring that makes Yost comfortable putting him in the lineup at first base and in the cleanup spot to start the season, likely keeping Billy Butler in the DH spot most of the time. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Hawaiian was happy to make a strong impression, but he knows he has work to do heading into the season. "I've done this for nine years. I know things don't really matter until 'day of,' so I'm not reading a lot into it," Ka'aihue said this spring. ... Everything went smoothly for Jeff Francis throughout Spring Training, and the lefty who came to Kansas City as a free agent after starting with Colorado is ready to take on the next stage of his career. But he'll be the same pitcher as before -- his 13 strikeouts in his last 10 spring innings notwithstanding. "That's not something I expect to do," he said. "I'm out there and I'm trying to throw strikes. I don't get into a lot of deep counts because I want guys to hit the ball, and strikeouts aren't going to be something I'm going to lean on."

Worth noting
The Angels and Royals are squaring off for the fourth time on Opening Day in their history, the last time coming in 1975 and never before in Kansas City. ... The Angels won the season series with the Royals a year ago, 7-3 -- the only winning record they had against an AL Central club. ... The Royals' homestand continues following an off-day on Monday with a two-game series against the White Sox. The Angels travel to Tampa Bay, before heading west for their home opener April 8 vs. Toronto.

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