KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A thought passed through the mind of Orioles third base coach Steve Boros as he watched Kansas City's Kevin Appier pitch in the early innings of yesterday's season opener.
An ugly thought. Boros nearly committed a major faux pas by blurting it out. "I almost said, 'When Appier's on, he's got the kind of stuff to no-hit anybody,' " said Boros, a coach with the Royals before joining the Orioles this season.
He might've drawn glares -- or, later on, congratulations -- for his prescience. Appier pitched no-hit ball before being replaced with two out in the seventh inning as his pitch count mounted. Three relievers finished off the Orioles to win, 5-1.
The Orioles' first hit came one out into the eighth inning, when third baseman Leo Gomez bounced a weak single through the left side of the infield. Sherman Obando had the Orioles' only other hit, another crawling roller.
The new and improved Orioles played poorly, botching several fly balls and committing two errors. But, as several of the Orioles mentioned after the game, they could've had a flawless defensive game and it wouldn't have mattered. Appier, throwing strikes with three different pitches and confusing the Orioles with his pitch selection, was superb.
Orioles starter Mike Mussina pitched exceptionally, requiring just pitches to blitz through five shutout innings before being pulled. (Manager Phil Regan, concerned about the long-term health of his rotation, decided before the game that Mussina was only going to throw five innings because of a shortened spring, and Regan stuck with that.)
Didn't matter. Appier was just too good.
"He wasn't going to give us anything," Mussina said. "It was one of the best games I've seen him pitch. I could've stayed in, but he pitched so well that I don't know if we ever would have scored a run off him."
Orioles center fielder Andy Van Slyke couldn't believe that Appier was so sharp this early in the season, coming off such a short spring. But the real surprise is that the right-hander still is wearing a Royals uniform.
During the ill-fated two months of restricted free agency that began in December, Appier agreed to a long-term deal with the Boston Red Sox. That deal fell apart, however, when the owners' implemented rules ran into the National Labor Relations Board.
After the resolution of the strike on April 3, the Royals talked to several teams about trading Appier, Boston and the Orioles included. Kansas City traded David Cone instead, Appier remaining to throw the first game played on grass at Kauffman Stadium.
Right away, Obando and Orioles second baseman Bret Barberie agreed, you could see that Appier was going to be tough. Leadoff hitter Brady Anderson took a forkball for strike three. Barberie guessed wrong twice to fall behind in the count, then hit a soft liner to third. First baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who hit a homer in last year's season opener, flailed at a forkball and rolled out to second base.
Appier got better. He would often be behind in the count, and the hitter would guess fastball and the right-hander would throw a nasty slider to a right-hander, or the forkball to a left-hander, and he would throw them for strikes. When the Orioles attempted to adjust, looking for breaking pitches when Appier was behind in the count, Appier would cross them up with fastballs; Barberie struck out twice that way.
"He always seems to know," Cal Ripken said, "when you're looking for off-speed stuff."
Take his word for it. Ripken struck out three times. Van Slyke had a couple of weak at-bats. Hoiles provided the only hard-hit ball in the first 6 2/3 innings, a harmless fly ball to deep center field in the fifth inning.
After Appier threw his 80th pitch in the sixth, a groundskeeper pulled the tarp off the mounds in the Royals bullpen and Rusty Meacham began warming. It seemed unlikely that Appier would come out for the seventh.
But he did, going past 90 pitches. Palmeiro popped out, Ripken struck out on Appier's 98th pitch, the no-hitter was just seven outs away -- and Royals manager Bob Boone headed for the mound.
Boone talked to Appier briefly, then reached for the ball. Royals fans booed lustily, and Appier looked disappointed, stalking off the mound in short, choppy strides. But he said later that he understood Boone's rationale.
"Obviously I'd like the chance to finish the game and throw a no-hitter," Appier said. "But to throw that many pitches was too big of a risk. It's very understandable of where [Boone] was coming from."
Meacham carried the no-hitter into the eighth, striking out Van Slyke for the first out. But after looking horrible on a first-pitch strike, Gomez reached out with one hand and pulled a grounder between Royals third baseman Gary Gaetti and shortstop Greg Gagne.
"That was a relief," said Gomez.
Short-term relief, anyway. There remained the matter of the winner and loser. The Royals had taken a 2-0 lead in the sixth against left-hander Jamie Moyer, on a single by Wally Joyner over a drawn-in infield, and a double into the left-center-field alley by designated hitter Bob Hamelin.
After another Royals run the following inning, Obando's RBI single scored Hoiles in the eighth to make it 3-1. But terrible pitching and defense by the Orioles led to two unearned runs for the Royals in the bottom of the eighth, the Kansas City rally progressing thusly: A walk, a two-base error by Obando, a walk, a hit batsman and a bases-loaded walk (courtesy of Armando Benitez).
Orioles right fielder Jeffrey Hammonds was offered this hypothetical: What if Appier had stayed in the game? Could he have finished the no-hitter?
"No," Hammonds said. "Somebody would've gotten a hit. I have to say that."
Then he smiled so broadly that you knew he wasn't really sure.
& Nobody will ever know.
HITS AND MISSES
On the field: One game into the season and Tom Goodwin already has an entry for greatest defensive play of the year. In the top of the seventh inning, Harold Baines drove a 2-0 fastball to dead center, over the head of Goodwin -- almost, anyway. Goodwin sprinted straight back, reached up and speared the ball before smashing into the wall.
In the dugout: True to his National League roots, Orioles manager Phil Regan was busy pulling strings in the dugout. He used a pinch runner and three pinch hitters and made a defensive change, and also used four relief pitchers behind Mike Mussina.
In the clubhouse: "I don't care if we had 10 weeks of spring training, [Appier] still would've been nasty today. Any time you -- can throw three quality pitches over the plate, you're going to be successful." -- Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles.