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02/25/09 12:00 AM EST

Spotlight on A-Rod in Grapefruit opener

All eyes on third baseman as Yanks kick things off against Jays

TAMPA, Fla. -- Since arriving in camp this spring, Alex Rodriguez has heard almost nothing but supportive comments at the George M. Steinbrenner complex from fans willing to gloss over his past steroid use in pursuit of a World Series title.

The Yankees third baseman does not expect that goodwill to continue with travels off campus. When New York opens its exhibition slate this afternoon against the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla., at 1:05 p.m. ET, Rodriguez is bracing for the worst.

"I've had good practice the last eight years," Rodriguez said. "I'm just excited to be playing baseball. I have no expectations. Hopefully I'll have three at-bats, get some good running in, go home and have a nice dinner."

With the earliest start to a Yankees Spring Training schedule in at least 60 years, manager Joe Girardi plans to board A-Rod, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano among his players for the 40-minute bus ride to Dunedin.

Rodriguez, Jeter and Cano will be in the lineup more than the usual every-other-day schedule, Girardi said, part of an ongoing plan to make sure his World Baseball Classic participants are prepared to report to their squads.

But the spotlight will likely be centered upon Rodriguez, playing his first game since admitting that he used performance-enhancing drugs while playing for the Texas Rangers from 2001-03. Girardi said that he is not sure what kind of reaction Rodriguez will receive from the fans in Dunedin.

"It'll be curious, I'm sure," Girardi said. "It's something we haven't been through before. I'm sure there's going to be some people that are upset and some people that are supportive. There's going to be some people that are in-between.

"I don't really know what to expect tomorrow. Alex is obviously a very popular player, and then a lot of times, in road cities, he's not so popular. I imagine there's going to be some people that are angry. We understand that and we've all got to get through that."

The Yankees plan to start veteran right-hander Brett Tomko in the contest, with the Jays countering with left-handed prospect Brett Cecil, an Andy Pettitte disciple.

Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner are among New York's position players making the trip, while Dan Giese, David Robertson and Jose Veras will be among the pitchers traveling.

"There's going to be some guys that play tomorrow that look a little rusty, no matter who you are," Girardi said.

After today's game, New York returns to Steinbrenner Field to open its home Grapefruit League schedule, a 33-game slate that leads into two exhibition games at the new Yankee Stadium on April 3 and 4 against the Chicago Cubs.

Girardi said that he has decided on starting pitchers for the Yankees' first five exhibition games: Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain and Alfredo Aceves are on track to round out the rotation through Sunday, with CC Sabathia in line to start March 6 vs. the Detroit Tigers.

With pitchers still ahead of hitters at this stage of the spring, Girardi said will not put as much stock into results as what he actually sees on the mound.

"You want them to get their fastball going and develop that arm strength, and you want them to use it," Girardi said.

Rodriguez said that he expects to play in four of the Yankees' first five games before joining the Dominican Republic squad to work out for the Classic. Rodriguez said that he could not be sure how he would react to game action.

"I'll let you know on Sunday," Rodriguez said. "I haven't played a game in five months, so I don't think it would be fair to start speculating on that. Hopefully after Sunday's game and maybe 12 at-bats, I'll have a better idea. It's quick."

As for his off-field issues, Rodriguez will meet with Major League Baseball investigators between today and Friday to discuss Rodriguez's recent admission of the use of performance-enhancing drugs from 2001-03, according to Newsday.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.