The Red Sox tried their absolute best to avoid losing to the Orioles on Opening Day. The big problem for the Red Sox is “their absolute best” ended up being “postpone the originally scheduled Opening Day game for 24 hours even though there was no rain in the forecast for game time.” It did not involve doing very much when they actually played the game.
When the two teams lined up to play on Friday afternoon, the Orioles rode one of the team’s best-ever Opening Day starts from John Means and a clutch base hit by Ryan Mountcastle to a 3-0 victory. The last time that the Red Sox were shut out on Opening Day, it was 1976, also against the Orioles. The starting pitcher that day was Jim Palmer in the first start of what became his third Cy Young-winning campaign. Palmer gave up six hits and two walks in an eight inning start.
It’s probably not what anyone who would have imagined a good 2021 Orioles baseball game would have pictured. That didn’t make it any less fun. For an Orioles fan, anyway. The assorted Sullys and Murphs who had to take two days off work to get the chance to attend this contest might feel differently.
One should not get carried away with excitement about the outcome of one particular pitching performance in a cold, April game. Means will face tougher pitching environments in the warmer months, and probably tougher offenses than this Boston bunch. That’s the grain of salt. You will always be glad to have a seven inning, one hit, no walk performance from your favorite team’s starting pitcher to have that grain of salt on top of it. Especially when the bullpen completes the team shutout.
By the Bill James-generated Game Score, which gives pitchers points for how far they go into a game, how many strikeouts they get, and takes points away for negative outcomes, Means had a score of 80. The Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli noted that this is the best Opening Day start of the 2021 season. That’s a fun thing to say about an Orioles pitcher. If you’re curious, Palmer’s Game Score in that 1976 opener was 71.
Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom still have outings when their teams are able to play after a postponed series, so Means could yet be topped. It will take nothing away from what he did today if that happens.
Orioles batters were only slightly less helpless against Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi than Red Sox batters were against Means. Means and Eovaldi had a scoreless duel going on through five innings. Means had only allowed one hit, a leadoff single in the first. Eovaldi, heading into the sixth, had surrendered three. O’s batters worked Eovaldi’s pitch count better, though, which sent Boston into the bullpen with one out in the sixth inning.
Red Sox relievers were not on Eovaldi’s level. Matt Andriese inherited a runner on first base, then walked the first batter he saw: Trey Mancini. This was Mancini’s first time on base; he’d grounded into double plays in his previous two at-bats. Anthony Santander followed with a scorching grounder (107.9mph, the hardest hit batted ball by either team in the game) that second baseman Enrique Hernández couldn’t field cleanly. It bounced in front of him and over him, and after he did a split and finally picked up the ball, he had no play.
This error loaded the bases for Mountcastle, the Opening Day cleanup hitter. Mountcastle worked the count full before he whacked a line drive that the Fenway Park TV camera operator seemed to think was headed for a grand slam. Not quite: The ball hit about halfway up the Green Monster. This was still plenty to get two runs across and break the scoreless tie.
That clutch double effectively ended the game, though there was still a bit of excitement to come later. Means, at this point, was in the middle of a stretch of 18 straight Red Sox batters retired. Maikel Franco muffed a grounder with none out in the bottom of the second. No one else got on base against Means before he exited the game after seven innings pitched, having thrown 97 pitches.
Means got some help from his friends in the field throughout the game, including one of the most unlikely of friends. If there was one guy you might have been nervous about, it was Rio Ruiz as the Opening Day second baseman. How would he handle a brand new position? Ruiz had two separate plays where he ran a long way and made a great basket catch, and later in the game, he ranged far to dive and field a ground ball to get an out. You would not have guessed he was a third baseman by trade.
The Orioles picked up an insurance run in the eighth inning. Leadoff man Cedric Mullins was kept in to face lefty pitcher Josh Taylor. This was the official first at-bat Mullins took as a lefty batter against a lefty pitcher after abandoning switch-hitting for spring training. Mullins worked the count full over nine pitches before flaring the tenth pitch into right field for a single. Mullins was one of two Orioles with two hits on Opening Day, along with catcher Pedro Severino. Mancini, up next, added another single, his first post-cancer base hit.
Santander delivered the insurance RBI by lining a pitch the opposite way in the hole between first and second. Mullins scored easily. However, the Red Sox hit the cutoff man on the throw in and Mancini had come too far around second; in the rundown, Mancini made it back to second base but Santander, who was trying to get to second base if Mancini was tagged out, ended up being tagged out instead.
The insurance run proved important for everyone’s nerves since the bad Tanner Scott made an appearance in the eighth inning. Scott walked the first batter he saw, then issued another walk with two outs to bring the tying run to the plate. Then, the good Tanner Scott arrived. He sent Bobby Dalbec packing on three pitches: Called strike, swinging strike, called strike. Good morning, good afternoon, and good night.
With Scott pitching the eighth, this left the ninth inning duties to 36-year-old César Valdez. Valdez, despite his age, is one of the eight Orioles for whom this Opening Day was their first. Valdez pitched an inning with minimal drama, allowing a two-out double to J.D. Martinez before getting Xander Bogaerts to line out to Santander to close out an Opening Day victory for the Orioles.
An Opening Day victory doesn’t have to be a sign of anything. The last Orioles Opening Day win was in 2018, and as we know, that team went 47-115. Whatever comes over the next 161 games, we can still enjoy today that after one game, the Orioles were tied for first place atop the American League East, leading both the last place New York Yankees and the last place Boston Red Sox. That feels so good to say.
The Orioles continue the opening series against the Red Sox on Saturday afternoon with a 1:10 scheduled start. Matt “The Dark Knight” Harvey will try to carry his spring renaissance into the regular season for the Orioles, with rookie Tanner Houck making the start for Boston.
Who was the Most Birdland Player for Opening Day 2021?
This poll is closed
John Means (7 IP, 1 H, 0 BB)
Ryan Mountcastle (go-ahead double, great dimples in post-game interview)
César Valdez (notched the save in his first ever Opening Day)
Rio Ruiz (three great plays at second base)
Cedric Mullins (two hits including his first left-left hit in his first left-left AB)