Eventually, new Orioles closer Tommy Hunter was going to get a big-boy, pressure-cooker, no-margin-for-error save opportunity — that's what happens when you pitch the ninth inning in the major leagues.
He got it out of the way quickly, allowing a single and hitting a batter, but ultimately pitching a scoreless ninth Monday to preserve the Orioles' 2-1 win on Opening Day against the Boston Red Sox.
"Earn it. That's a way of life and baseball, I think," Hunter said. "You've got to earn everything you get. One-run game to start the season off against the defending world champs, here we are."
As Hunter entered the game in the ninth, the announced crowd of 46,685 roared its approval.
"It was enjoyable. It was fun. The crowd was loud," said Hunter, who now has five career saves — the other four coming last year. "That's always fun when everyone is standing, yelling. It was loud."
A converted starter, Hunter has been pegged to be the in-house replacement for Jim Johnson, who led the American League in saves in each of the past two seasons before he was traded to the Oakland Athletics in December. This offseason, the Orioles attempted to fill Johnson's role with free-agent right-hander Grant Balfour, whose deal fell through after the Orioles chafed at the results of his physical. He later signed with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Orioles then courted the Rays' former closer, Fernando Rodney, but instead decided to stick with Hunter, Johnson's top setup man last season. Orioles manager Buck Showalter didn't make an official pronouncement about the role until his pregame news conference Monday — but he had already told Hunter about his intentions in a "short" conversation over the weekend.
"We are going to start out the campaign here, so to speak, with when we get in that [save] situation, Tommy will get an opportunity to do that job for us," Showalter said. "It falls underneath the, 'No [kidding], Captain Obvious [categories]."
So the 27-year-old was thrust into the fire immediately Monday in one of the toughest situations a closer will encounter.
"Ya reckon?" Showalter said after the game. "I'd like to say they'll get easier, but they won't. One-run leads in the American League East, home or away, are hard to finish. You know you're going to get everybody's best shot."
The matchup wasn't exactly in Hunter's favor. The first batter he had to face, Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks, had homered twice against Hunter this spring and was 4-for-7 against him in the regular season in his career. The first four scheduled hitters were a combined 20-for-60 (.333) versus Hunter.
"We don't look at numbers, come on," Hunter said, laughing. "They are a good team. They won the World Series last year. You know you are going to have your hands full when you face them, and you've just got to make pitches."
Hunter began the outing by hitting Middlebrooks with his third pitch. After outfielder Daniel Nava popped up, second baseman Dustin Pedroia singled to make it first and second with slugger David Ortiz — who was 7-for-24 with three homers in his career against Hunter — due up.
Hunter induced Ortiz to fly out to left fielder Nelson Cruz, and then he caught Jackie Bradley Jr. looking at strike three for the save. Camden Yards erupted with cheers as Hunter walked off the mound.
"Our crowd was legit. That was awesome," he said. "I hope they come out like that every game for 80 more here. If they can do that, we're going to be having a fun time."
First baseman Chris Davis, who was traded to Baltimore with Hunter by the Texas Rangers in 2011 and is one of his closest friends on the club, said he's not surprised by how Hunter handled his first chance as the Orioles' new closer.
"That's what we expect from Tommy. There is a reason he is in the position he is in. There's a reason he is going to be successful. He has worked really hard, even going back to last year," Davis said. "What better way to show that than in the first game, a one-run game, the heart of their lineup coming up. He stepped up to the challenge."
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