ARLINGTON, Texas — Nolan Ryan is giving himself a little wiggle room this time. He’s not making a specific prediction on how many games he thinks the Texas Rangers will win this season.
The Rangers president — and now CEO — still has significant expectations for the defending American League champions.
“Ninety-95 (wins). I gave myself a little range because everybody kept pounding me on the 92,” Ryan said with a grin. “So let’s see if (fans) hang their sign this year with 90-95 on it. I bet they don’t.”
Before last season, Ryan made what many considered an overly optimistic prediction for a Rangers team that hadn’t been to the playoffs in more than a decade. They won the AL West with 90 wins in the regular season, then added eight more in the postseason.
Texas goes for its first victory of 2011 on Friday in its most-anticipated opener. The Rangers raise their AL championship flag before playing reloaded Boston at 4 p.m.
The Red Sox missed the playoffs last season, but are widely considered the AL East favorite after adding Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, two of baseball’s most productive players.
There are some predictions of 100 wins, but like Texas, the Red Sox are focused on trying to get the first one and building from there.
“I don’t put numbers out there,” Kevin Youkilis said. “I just go out and just play the game and all the numbers and all the wins will play themselves out after 162 games.”
With the addition of Gonzalez at first base, Youkilis switched back to third base for the Red Sox, filling a vacancy created when Adrian Beltre turned down a $10 million option to stay and instead signed an $80 million, five-year deal with Texas that includes the likelihood of another $16 million in 2016.
Beltre, a two-time Gold Glove winner, hit .321 with a league-best 49 doubles, 28 home runs and 102 RBIs in his only season with the Red Sox. He was an All-Star for the first time in his 13-season career, and faces his old team in his Rangers debut.
“It’s kind of a little weird, but it’s just another game,” Beltre said. “Hopefully get the first couple of games out of the way and start the long journey.”
Beltre missed the first two weeks of spring training games because of a right calf strain, and played only 10 games in Arizona. But he said he’s ready for the season and an opening week reunion for him that also includes a three-game series against Seattle, the team he spent five seasons with before Boston.
C.J. Wilson, who won a Rangers-high 15 games last season after moving from the bullpen to the rotation, starts the opener against Jon Lester in a matchup of left-handers.
“I like pitching against good teams and I like pitching in those kind of big situations,” Wilson said. “Every victory is important, but last year I pitched really well against the Red Sox, so I’m sure they have a little bit of a bone to pick with me.”
Wilson was 3-0 with an 0.86 ERA in his three starts against Boston last year. The Red Sox hit only .157 against him with 20 strikeouts and only two runs in 21 innings.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona made a couple of tweaks to his expected regular lineup against Wilson.
Though J.D. Drew is expected to be the everyday right fielder, Mike Cameron will start in right Friday and hit seventh. Youkilis will bat fourth with Gonzalez fifth, though Francona plans for it to be Gonzalez then Youkilis against right-handers.
Lester, who got the opening assignment ahead of Josh Beckett or John Lackey, has also been pretty good against the Rangers. He threw eight shutout innings in 100-degree heat at Rangers Ballpark last August and has a 3-1 record with a 2.94 ERA in seven career starts against them.
Ryan expects the Rangers to win the AL West again, and likes that they are opening the season against Boston.
“Well, you might as well start with who you think is probably the favorite in that division over there,” Ryan said. “I really think that they’re going to have the kind of club and the kind of year we expect, so we know we’re going to see good pitching out of them this series. So we’re going to have to be ready.”
The Red Sox worked out Thursday in Houston, where they played an exhibition game the night before, instead of Rangers Ballpark.
Gonzalez made his major league debut with Texas in 2004, and was traded to San Diego before the 2006 season. Crawford’s last game with Tampa Bay was the deciding Game 5 of the AL division series last season against Texas.
The Rangers opener comes exactly five months after San Francisco clinched the World Series with a Game 5 victory in Texas.
“It’s an opportunity for the team to go out and raise the bar,” said Michael Young, the longest-tenured Ranger starting his 11th season. “That’s really what being a winning team is all about — experiencing some success, getting used to it and finding a way to get back on top of the mountain. … So we’ll start from scratch and try to build our way back up.”