PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Pirates were shuffling toward their dugout at PNC Park following an open workout on Wednesday afternoon when a fan yelled "we still believe."
Yep, must be Opening Day.
How else to explain the smell of fresh paint at the picturesque stadium along the Allegheny River or the small bouquet of red and yellow flowers that adorn manager Clint Hurdle's desk?
Today, baseball starts anew. And the Pirates - for what they hope isn't the last time this season - have the same record as the Phillies, who they host in the season opener today.
"We're better," Hurdle said. "We've got to go prove it on the field now."
The Pirates spent the offseason insisting their four-month flirtation with success in 2011 was no fluke. The Phillies spent it trying to recover from a painful collapse in the playoffs when a 102-win team lost in five games to eventual World Series-champion St. Louis.
Today: Philadelphia Phillies at Pittsburgh Pirates, 1:30 p.m.
Pitchers: Phillies RHP Roy Halladay (0-0) vs. Pirates LHP Erik Bedard (0-0)
TV: ROOT, WHVL
The lasting image of Philadelphia's season is slugger Ryan Howard trying to crawl toward first base after tearing the Achilles tendon in his left leg while making the final out of the season.
Nearly six months later, manager Charlie Manuel still isn't sure who's going to fill Howard's spot until the 2006 MVP returns. Or at least, Manuel isn't willing to share it.
"I've still got 20 hours," Manuel said with a laugh.
It's unlikely the Phillies would start veteran Jim Thome at first against Pittsburgh left-hander Erik Bedard, who is looking to revive his promising but injury-plagued career. That could mean Ty Wigginton could get the nod, though there's a chance Manuel could get creative and move John Mayberry from the outfield to first and allow Juan Pierre to start in left.
Good options to have, even for a team without Howard and second baseman Chase Utley, who is in Arizona rehabbing his aching knees.
It's the kind of depth the Pirates have tried to acquire after they limped to the finish last fall while enduring a 19th straight losing season.
Catcher Rod Barajas, shortstop Clint Barmes, first baseman Casey McGehee and outfielder Nate McLouth were brought in to provide depth around the young core of centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, second baseman Neil Walker and rightfielder Jose Tabata.
"I feel like we've got a lot of guys that can contribute," said McCutchen, who signed a new six-year contract last month that will keep him in Pittsburgh through 2017. "There is no backtrack on what we have."
Hurdle, however, insists pitching will determine whether the Pirates survive a brutal opening month that includes a nine-game West Coast road trip. It's why he so quickly turned to Bedard after supposed ace A.J. Burnett went down with a fractured right orbital bone sustained during a bunting drill five weeks ago.
The 33-year-old Bedard has been limited by injuries throughout his career, including a shoulder problem that forced him to miss all of 2010. He came back to go 5-9 with a respectable 3.62 ERA while playing for Seattle and Boston last season before signing a one-year deal with Pittsburgh last December.
Bedard is as healthy as he's been in quite some time and understands how vital it is for him to prove he can stay off the disabled list.
"I'm going to do the best I can," Bedard said. "I know I've had a lot of injuries in the past and I'm trying to get over that."
If the Pirates are going to take another step forward in 2012, Bedard likely doesn't have a choice. Pittsburgh will start the season with Burnett and Charlie Morton both on the 15-day disabled list, leaving Bedard - career record 56-50 - as the de facto No. 1 starter.
Hurdle, however, believes Bedard still has No. 1 stuff.
"He's a craftsman out there," Hurdle said. "He's got a very slow heartbeat."
One Bedard insists won't speed up on Opening Day, no matter the pomp and circumstance.
"They put more emphasis on it but after the first game you have 161 or so left," he said.
The Pirates only played about 100 of them well before free-falling to 72-90. It was a difficult journey, particularly after reaching heights not seen by the franchise in two decades.
Hurdle has preached the importance of finishing - whether it be an at-bat, a relay throw from the outfield or a double-play attempt - yet he also understands how important the start can be. The Pirates were steady from Opening Day through August. They're hoping to build on it in 2012.
They know they can't win the pennant or snap The Streak, but a solid weekend against one of the best teams in the game could be invaluable.
Entering his second season at the helm, Hurdle has a much better feel for the organization and the city
"I'm encouraged by the work we've done," he said.
And he knows it's just beginning.