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Opener in St. Pete brings Sale full circle

MLB.com @IanMBrowne

ST. PETERSBURG -- For Red Sox ace Chris Sale, pitching Opening Day at Tropicana Field on Thursday (4 p.m. ET) will bring back some nostalgia.

The Southwest Florida native was sitting in the stands for the very first game ever played at The Trop, back on March 31, 1998. The Rays, called the Devil Rays back then, lost to the Tigers, 11-6.

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ST. PETERSBURG -- For Red Sox ace Chris Sale, pitching Opening Day at Tropicana Field on Thursday (4 p.m. ET) will bring back some nostalgia.

The Southwest Florida native was sitting in the stands for the very first game ever played at The Trop, back on March 31, 1998. The Rays, called the Devil Rays back then, lost to the Tigers, 11-6.

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It was quite a birthday present for Sale, who had turned 9 the day before.

"I remember I was sitting right just to the left of 144. I had a Rays jersey on, whoops," said Sale. "My uncle bought me a polo, like for Rays colors, the blue and green and white, and I got mustard on it. So that's where the jersey came from, yeah. And I actually have a panoramic picture at my house of the first pitch being thrown here."

Back then, Sale was just happy to be at the ballpark on an historic day for Tampa Bay's baseball franchise.

On Thursday, he wants to set the tone for the Red Sox's season and dominate.

"It's fun. It's exciting," said Sale. "I've done it a couple times before. This would be, obviously, my first one here [for the Red Sox], which is special. Boston, obviously, is a great city for sports, a great city for baseball. And to be named Opening Day starter for this organization is not something I take lightly and I'm actually really excited about."

And if you're worried about that line drive that hit Sale on the left hip in his final Grapefruit League start to limit his performance to two-thirds of an inning, don't be.

The lefty is locked and loaded for Thursday.

"I'm pitching until they take the ball out of my hand," said Sale. "I don't ever ask before a game how many innings am I allowed to throw or how many pitches I'm allowed to throw. I'm going out there with everything I got until they tell me I'm done."

Cora excited, but not nervous

Maybe Red Sox manager Alex Cora will feel a little different when he arrives to the ballpark on Thursday. But as of Wednesday, as his team held a workout at Tropicana Field, he didn't feel jitters. However, he was full of anticipation.

"Obviously tonight is going to be interesting how much sleep I'm going to get. The kids are going to be here and they're still sleeping 2 1/2 hours a night," said Cora. "If you see me tomorrow sleepwalking, it wasn't because I didn't sleep because of the game. I didn't sleep because of the babies."

Cora took time out of his day on Wednesday to thank Astros manager AJ Hinch for the experience of being his bench coach last year.

"Honestly, there's no way I'm this relaxed and looking forward to the season without having a season on the bench," said Cora.

Vazquez to catch Sale

In 2017, Sandy Leon caught 31 of Sale's 32 starts. However, one change Cora is making is the absence of personal catchers for individual pitchers.

Christian Vazquez, who is expected to be Boston's No. 1 catcher this season, will serve as Sale's batterymate on Opening Day.

"We feel comfortable with him catching Sale, too," said Cora.

Team dinner a bonding experience

Cora was impressed by the warmth and camaraderie at the team dinner that lefty Eduardo Rodriguez organized on Tuesday night in St. Petersburg.

"It was awesome," said Cora. "I've never been on a team that the whole travel group was in one sitting. We have 56 people here and it was awesome. It was something we will always remember. Whatever happens throughout the season, we can go back to that day. We've been talking about connecting and all of that, and having fun. At the end of the day it's what they do. It's a good group. They care about each other. It was eye-opening. It was pretty cool to be with them."

Win, dance, repeat?

With less than 24 hours before the dawn of the new season, Boston's outfield trio of Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts were keeping it a mystery if they would keep their popular win dance going this season.

It was a staple the last two seasons with the #win, dance, repeat slogan.

Will the Win Dance return?

"I got nothing," said Bradley. "We'll all find out together."

"Still in the works," said Betts. "We've got less than 24 hours now. I don't know what we're going to do. We've got to talk and get some texts going and hopefully we can do it."

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.

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