PHOENIX -- Arizona and Colorado made notable advances last season as the two National League wild cards, joining the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers in the game's strongest division.
If expectations are naturally higher this season, so be it.
Bring them on, both teams seem to say as they open 2018 with a three-game series at Chase Field beginning Thursday.
"We have to embrace these new expectations," said Arizona manager Torey Lovullo, the NL Manager of the Year after the D-backs went 93-69 in his first season in 2017, a 24-game improvement from the previous year.
"We're in new territory now. We might have an 'x' on our back. But I want us to have that underdog mentality and to go out and to say that we're a tough baseball team and we are going to earn it every single night. We have a lot to prove. We need to overcome some of the limitations that we walked through last year, some of the expectations that weren't met, and come out the other side."
The D-backs will send left-hander Patrick Corbin to the mound to oppose Rockies' right-hander Jon Gray in the first career season-opening start for each. Corbin was chosen after No. 1 Zack Greinke suffered a minor groin strain March 14 that set him back in spring training. He is expected to start Saturday.
"The players who have grown up in this division -- (Buster) Posey, (Clayton) Kershaw, (Nolan) Arenado, (Paul) Goldschmidt ... this is a division of good players," said Colorado manager Bud Black, who was 87-75 in his first season with the Rockies in 2017.
"I think we all know the challenges ahead of us. I don't want to say it's fun, but it's real, because there are good players. Really good players."
Arizona beat Gray and the Rockies in the NL wild card playoff game at Chase Field a year ago, getting seven hits and four earned runs off Gray in a 1 1/3 innings of an 11-8 victory. Gray was 2-1 in three regular-season starts against the Diamondbacks last year, 2-0 at Chase.
"There's definitely a chip-on-my-shoulder-type thing," Gray told reporters when he officially named the opening day starter, "but I can't let that get in the way, either.
"It's something I'm really focused on -- that I have to say, 'Hey, treat it just like another game.' The (postseason start) didn't feel like an in-season start, either. It's something I want to reclaim. Get back out there. Show dominance."
Gray was 10-4 with a 3.67 ERA in 20 starts last season after missing time with a foot injury, and he is developing into the ace of a young staff that thrived under Black in 2017. Rookies Kyle Freeland and German Marquez won 11 games and rookie Antonio Senzatela won 10. The Rockies had a credible 4.51 team ERA, 4.09 away from Coors Field.
Arizona credited its rise last year to a starting staff led by Greinke and Robbie Ray. The D-backs had a 3.66 ERA last season, shaving nearly 1 1/2 runs off their 2016 figure of 5.09, the worst in the league.
"That carried us throughout the season. It set the right tone," Lovullo said.
Change is constant, of course, and the D-backs will enter without right fielder J.D. Martinez, who became one of the most historically impactful trade-deadline acquisitions when he had 29 homers and 65 RBIs in 62 games with Arizona last year.
Steven Souza Jr. was acquired from Tampa Bay to play right field, but he will open the season on the disabled list with a pectoral injury. Brad Boxberger, also acquired from the Rays, will replace Fernando Rodney as the closer.
Franchise icon Carlos Gonzalez re-signed a one-year contract with the Rockies late in spring training and will play right field. Cargo's return enables the Rockies to put Charlie Blackmon back in the leadoff spot, where he hit an NL-high .331 with 35 doubles, 14 triples, 37 homers, 104 RBIs and 14 stolen bases.
Nolan Arenado has averaged 40 homers, 131 RBIs and one Gold Glove over the past three seasons and might be the best player in the game.
Corbin will make his first opening day start four years after he could have. He made the 2013 All-Star team and was expected to start the opener in 2014 before suffering a torn ligament that required Tommy John surgery midway through spring training. That injury cost him the season.
"I'm just excited, " said Corbin 14-13 with a 4.03 ERA last season. "I'm honored to go out there. I feel well prepared and ready to go."
Corbin was 2-1 with a 4.03 in four starts against the Rockies last year and is 7-3 with a 4.76 ERA against them in 17 career appearances.