Coming off a year in which they defied the odds and scoffed at conventionality, these Orioles continued right where they left off in Tuesday’s regular-season opener against the Tampa Bay Rays, a team they outlasted last season to make the playoffs.
“If we can just keep our people on the field, we feel like we can be competitive,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “But [there are] a lot of bridges to cross. Today starts a long journey together, and I'm as curious as everybody else to see where it takes us.”
For as much disappointment as there was in Baltimore this offseason that the Orioles couldn’t land a middle-of-the-order power bat, the heart of the lineup was more than capable Tuesday. The Orioles’ 3-4-5 hitters — catcher Matt Wieters, center fielder Adam Jones and first baseman Chris Davis — drove in all seven runs and combined to go 6-for-12 with three doubles, two homers and three walks.
“It’s something to where Buck is big on passing the baton, whoever is in the lineup it’s his job to step up and do it for us,” said Wieters, who gave the Orioles a lead four batters into the game with a two-run homer to left off Price. “We got a lot of guys who are early in their career and just getting another year’s experience and continuing to try to improve, and hopefully that makes our lineup even better.”
Right-hander Jason Hammel, making his first career Opening Day start, won his first game in 32 career appearances at Tropicana Field, where he began his career with the Rays from 2006 to 2008. Despite a start that Hammel characterized as “pretty bad,” he allowed just three runs on three hits over six innings.
The Orioles chased Price from the game after six innings by working patient at-bats that elevated the left-hander’s pitch count. Among them was a 13-pitch walk that Wieters drew in the third inning that Showater said “might have been the difference-maker in the game.”
Still, the Orioles started out 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position and were trailing 3-2 in the seventh when Jones laced a two-out, 0-2 fastball from McGee into the left-center field gap to score Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis and give the Orioles a 4-3 lead.
“We look at the bright side,” Jones said. “We're getting all these opportunities; we're going to get a hit eventually. Just, fortunately, it was an 0-2 pitch and it was a good pitch to hit. Just put a good swing on it.”
The Rays intentionally walked Wieters, who had already homered and doubled in the game, to face Davis for in lefty-against-lefty matchup. But Davis clobbered McGee’s first pitch with an upper-cut swing, and the ball landed in the right-field seats for a three-run homer that served as the eventual game-winner and silenced the sellout crowd of 34,078.
“I’m pretty sure they looked at who was on deck when they did it,” Davis said of the Rays walking Wieters to face him. “So you can’t blame them for playing the matchups right there. McGee’s got a great arm. He throws hard. I was able to get him early, obviously. I think after throwing four balls right there, I thought that he was going to try to get ahead with a strike, and I just tried to get the barrel to it and he supplied the rest.”
McGee went into the game having held the Orioles to a .103 batting average (3-for-29) last season with 17 strikeouts. He had held Jones and Davis hitless in a combined eight career at-bats with six strikeouts. Davis’ homer also snapped McGee’s 27-appearance homerless streak, which spanned 90 batters.
Wieters’ homer in the top of the first — Jones had reached on a two-out double — was the first by a current Oriole against Price, who had allowed just one earned run in 22 1/3 innings against the Orioles in three starts last season.
“They came out hitting the ball well against [Price] and both Jones and Wieters don't have a great history against [Price],” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “So that kind got my antenna up a little bit that something's rotten in Baltimore where all of a sudden they’ve done some work and their approach might be a little bit different, and they got him. And then Jones did the same thing against [McGee].”
Hammel retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced — including eight straight at one point — before allowing a solo homer to Ben Zobrist in the fourth.
“To get some runs early off Price, that's not an easy task,” Jones said. “It lets Hammel, even before he takes the mound, let's him go out there and take a deep breath. He's a vet, but I think the runs early always help.”
The Orioles’ patience at the plate allowed them to force Price (100 pitches) from the game after six innings. But they failed to build a big lead against him. The Orioles had the bases loaded with one out in the third, but Davis grounded into an inning-ending double play. They were unable to score in the fourth and sixth despite leadoff doubles in both innings.
Hammel took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the sixth, but he issued a leadoff walk to Kelly Johnson. Johnson scored the tying run on Desmond Jennings’ double down the third-base line, which deflected off Manny Machado’s glove and into the bullpen area in left. Sam Fuld’s sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice fly by Zobrist scored Jennings to give Tampa Bay a 3-2 lead.
But the Orioles would send eight batters to the plate in the five-run seventh, a rally that began with back-to-back singles by Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis before Jones’ two-run double.
The Orioles bullpen, which had the fifth-best ERA in baseball last year, held the Rays in check late as Troy Patton, Darren O’Day and Jim Johnson combined to allow just one run on three hits over the final three innings.
It was just one game, but several players said it had the feel of a playoff game. The Rays are a team the Orioles will likely need to get past to make the playoffs again, and in Tuesday’s opener — if just for one day — the Orioles showed that the only expectations that matter are their own.
“We know what’s going on in the clubhouse,” Hammel said. “For all the things that happened outside the clubhouse, we come out, we barely changed the team this year. It’s something we’re proud of. We’re going to continue to play hard. It was one of 162. We’ll come back tomorrow and continue to do it. We’re just having fun and really we have our own expectations.”