Fifteen years ago, the Orioles went wire-to-wire in the American League East. We are celebrating that 1997 season here and there throughout the year. The likelihood of repeating that feat is not very high, but the only way it could begin is by winning on Opening Day. Despite a 9th inning with a Gregg-esque level of drama (though it was Gregg-free), the O's opened up the year with a 4-2 victory over the Twins.
Even in a year where the expectations are low, Opening Day is a sacred day in Baltimore, the one day where it's safe to dream big. The sellout crowd of 46,773 that was on hand got to experience a Camden Yards that sported fresh, new renovations while still keeping the classic feel that makes it the best ballpark in baseball. They also got to experience an O's victory thanks to a strong effort by Jake Arrieta.
Some might have said that Arrieta was among the worst Opening Day starters in MLB - perhaps not unfairly, given his career 4.88 ERA. That was the old Jake, though, the one with a ping pong ball in his elbow, and the one that showed up today was displaying a strong fastball, and offspeed pitches that were both unhittable and in the strike zone. He had four strikeouts against two walks, a ratio that O's fans will take from him every start. After 7 shutout innings, he'd thrown 97 pitches, of which 60 were strikes, only allowing two hits - one of which did not even leave the infield. Though it was only one game, it's better to have this be the first impression of the rotation than otherwise.
The O's offense did not miss out on the party. The bottom of the first inning saw J.J. Hardy work a walk off Twins starter Carl Pavano, bringing Nick Markakis to the plate with a man on base. Over the offseason there was a lot of talk on this site about whether Markakis would be able to have any power due to his surgery. Markakis' response to us was hitting a home run to the opposite field, which Daniel Moroz said on Twitter was the first such home run for Nick since 2008. The ball landed several rows deep. It did not sneak into the stands.
For a while, it looked like that was all the offense the Orioles would need. The Twins did not have a runner reach third base until the 9th inning. Leading 4-0 going into the 9th, with two lefties due up, meant that Troy Patton would appear. Patton walked Joe Mauer, retired Justin Morneau on a strikeout, then promptly gave up a home run to righty Josh Willingham, cutting the lead to 4-2.
As a result, Jim Johnson, the freshly-anointed closer, came on to get a save. Ryan Doumit struck out, getting the second out, but Danny Valencia walked and Chris Parmalee singled into the hole between first and second. First-and-third with the go-ahead run coming to the plate in the form of Trevor Plouffe. There was more agony than there needed to be, but a painless fielder's choice to short later and the Orioles were in the win column to open up the 2012 season.
The two insurance runs the Orioles added throughout the game proved to be crucial. They got one in the 4th inning, when Markakis, one of the day's stars, led off with a walk and moved over to third when Adam Jones doubled into left field. That meant Nick could score easily on a Matt Wieters RBI groundout. Jones was on third with one out but could not score.
The bottom of the 7th saw another add-on run. Hardy singled, then Markakis came to the plate and tripled to right. This was one of those plays that doesn't get scored an error but a competent right fielder probably makes the catch. Doumit, a converted catcher, was playing right field, and tracked the ball back nearly to the fence. Instead of hauling it in, he had the ball go off the tip of his glove and ricochet off the fence in front of the groundskeepers' passage. The ball rolled past Twins CF Denard Span. Hardy scored and Markakis had the triple.
Nick would be thrown out at home to end the inning, trying to score on a Wieters fly ball. This was one of those plays where you can only watch and wonder what the heck happened. The ball seemed to be deep enough; left fielder Willingham's momentum was not carrying him towards the plate. Nick ran and was barely halfway down the line when the ball bounced in front of Mauer. He was easily tagged out. Did he leave late? If so, why did he keep running? Was he not running very fast? If so, why did he go at all? Perhaps he was surprised Willingham could make such a strong throw.
Whatever it was, it was not pretty at all. Thankfully, the run that Markakis represented there did not prove necessary.
Matt Lindstrom threw a scoreless 8th, though he looked to have a case of Opening Day nerves. Or at least, something was causing him to miss the strike zone by wide margins. He did not walk a batter in the inning even for all that his command was off. Singles by Valencia and Span had the Twins threatening, but Lindstrom got a ground ball to Mark Reynolds to end the inning.
Let's elaborate on that for a second, because as we all know, when Reynolds is involved, there is no routine grounder. Reynolds charged the ball, fielded it cleanly, took a little time to make sure of his grip before throwing, and then launched a ball that nearly sailed past Chris Davis, who earned his day's pay by going full extension, keeping his feet on the bag as he fell forward to make the catch. The play looked like one of those you see in the NFL, where only the tips of the receiver's toes are in bounds as he makes a catch while falling out of bounds.
Still, a win is a win, and a cruel intercession by reality on the notion of an undefeated season - or at least another wire-to-wire one - is postponed another day. Tomorrow's game has a 7:05pm start time and will see Francisco Liriano starting for the Twins, with Tommy Hunter appearing for the O's.