One swing was the difference in the Baltimore Orioles’ season-opening 2-1 win over the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox. Nelson Cruz earned the first installment of his $8 million salary with a sweet, quick-swing, first-pitch, 7th-inning homer that broke a 1-1 tie. It was about the only pitch that Jon Lester put in the middle of the plate.
After the typically awesome opening day fanfare at Camden Yards featuring gold gloves presentations to Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Manny Machado, the 46,000 in attendance were on the edge of their seats for every pitch of the whole game.
The Orioles were able to take a 1-0 lead in the second inning on an opening walk by Cruz who moved to third with good base-running on a bloop single by Matt Wieters. Cruz scored on a double-play grounder by Delmon Young.
Chris Tillman battled his way through five innings, throwing a high percentage of fastballs, as secondary pitches could not seem to be established consistently. Though the velocity was good, there was not a lot of late movement after the first inning. And between pitching from behind too often, along with the Boston propensity for fouling off pitches, the count went up quickly – 61 for three innings, and 79 for four. Justin Pedroia started the fifth with an 11-pitch deep, deep fly to the center-field wall. Big Papi followed with the same – perhaps both being held in the park by the wind. Tillman finished with 104 pitches, giving up seven hits and a walk, while striking out four.
The lone run off Tillman came from reclamation project Grady Sizemore. After a solid single in the second inning, Sizemore lifted a homer just long enough to clear the right-field scoreboard. (Showalter said in the post-game interview that he thought Sizemore broke his bat on the swing.) The 31-year-old has not played since 2011, having endured back and knee surgeries; but a great spring training season convinced the Sox to keep him. So Dan Duquette is not the only GM/VP type who gets players out of the so-called dumpster.
As with spring training, the best Orioles pitching performance came from Zach Britton in the 6th and 7th innings – dealing up his nasty stuff and ultimately gaining the win. Evan Meek struggled a bit in the 8th and did not have the crispness of the spring season, but Brian Matusz came on to get the final out on three pitches with a comebacker from A.J. Pierzynski.
This set up the 9th-inning drama of bringing on Tommy Hunter for his first closing experience. It looked a whole lot like the scary Jim Johnson style 9th-inning adventure of 2013. Hunter drilled Will Middlebrooks with a running fastball leading off the inning. Pedroia demonstrated his unbelievable skills by drilling a one-out single to center to put the Sox with runners on first and second. A fly-out to deep center from David Ortiz and a final strikeout of Jackie Bradley sealed the win.
An interesting angle that is only known to the public through MASN writer Roch Kubatko was the story surrounding Middlebrooks hitting two spring homers off Hunter. Roch reported then that Hunter told him in Florida, “I’m setting him up for the season. He’s probably going to get a couple off-speed pitches the next time up. Setting him up for the regular season, man. I want him to think that’s all I’ve got. It’s all in the chess game, right?” What chess piece plunks the opponent?
I am not convinced this closer situation is going to work in the long haul … kinda got away with one today. To be fair, Hunter actually had Pedroia struck out on a missed call on a check swing. In fact, Showalter asked during the press gathering after the game about how that looked on the replay, and when told that it sure appeared to be a swing, he said, “Good, that makes me feel better.”
Just getting a win today makes me feel better. It was tough day for baseball with the swirling wins and the long shadows, etc. But the Orioles did what they had to do in order to win. This looked like a 2012 type of victory. And that is the character that makes a team great.