By Eduardo A. Encina
The Baltimore Sun
9:57 AM EDT, April 1, 2014
Of course it’s only one game, but if the Orioles can make it a habit of winning low-scoring, one-run games, 2014 really could be a special season.
The Orioles had their chances to score in their 2-1 Opening Day win over the defending champion Boston Red Sox on Monday at Camden Yards. They put leadoff runners on base, they hit into rally-killing double plays, they swung wildly at some pitches -- all things that haunted the Orioles down the stretch last year.
But no one talked about that Monday, because that was overshadowed by new Orioles left fielder Nelson Cruz’s game-winning homer, by Tommy Hunter’s bend-but-don’t-break ninth inning in his first test as closer, by the team’s stellar defense and the bullpen’s four shutout innings.
The bats will be there. The Orioles have one of the best lineups in baseball. And give Boston lefty Jon Lester credit for limiting damage.
Sprinkle in a heavy dose of emotion, and Monday’s victory was a big one.
Hunter said the day felt like an emotional roller coaster, from running down the orange carpet to the tributes to late public relations director Monica Barlow, Gold Glove outfielder Paul Blair and club investor Tom Clancy.
Players postponed their trip to center field for pregame introductions to stay in the dugout and watch the tribute to Barlow on the outfield video board. They wouldn’t have been able to see it from center field.
Then there was the first pitch, Cruz’s seventh-inning homer, Boston consistently knocking on the door, and finally, Hunter getting the final three outs in the ninth despite allowing two men on base.
The Orioles had been preparing for this for nearly two months down in Sarasota, Fla., but Monday was the first true test.
And lots of little moments were the difference.
I was especially impressed by left-hander Zach Britton’s two scoreless innings. He retired six of the seven batters he faced in the sixth and seventh innings, getting all six outs on groundballs.
The only hit Britton allowed was a one-out double to Xander Bogaerts in the sixth inning. But it was promising to see Britton still get out of the inning while working from the stretch -- especially with a fast base runner in a tie game -- something he really focused on during the spring as he adjusted to a new role as a reliever.
Britton had some help from third baseman Ryan Flaherty, who will fill in at third in Manny Machado’s absence. Flaherty perfectly played a ball that took a high chop to the left of the mound -- charging the ball, barehanding it on the bounce and throwing to first to get A.J. Pierzynski.
On the next play, Flaherty gloved a hard grounder to his left off the bat of Will Middlebrooks to strand the potential go-ahead run at third.
Britton went on to retire the top of the Boston lineup in order in the seventh.
Even though Evan Meek allowed a pair of base runners in the eighth, he recovered from a misplay to make an incredible athletic play to limit the damage.
After a leadoff walk, Mike Carp hit a sharp grounder that hit off Chris Davis at first and onto the infield grass. Meek chased it down and overran the ball at first, but he picked it up and flung the ball to Davis as he fell to the ground to get Carp.
Brian Matusz came on for Meek with two on and two outs that inning and induced a comebacker from Pierzynski on a changeup -- the pitch he’d been working to perfect all spring as he was being stretched out.
So under the bright spotlight of Opening Day, the Orioles showed exactly what they were concentrating on back in Sarasota on the back fields of the Ed Smith Stadium complex. That might be the most encouraging part of the first win of the season.
Doing those little things were the difference in a one-run game Monday and could be throughout a long season.
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