The first month of a season devoted to discovery ended last night at Camden Yards with Orioles starting pitcher Willis Roberts standing before his locker with a 5-3 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a surprise 4-0 record and a fleeting share of the league lead in wins.
"It is," said a pitcher who entered spring training a nonroster invitee having waited eight years for a major-league start, "the opportunity."
Roberts gave the Orioles a third consecutive quality start despite struggling for most of six innings with blisters on the index and middle fingers of his right hand. Even so, he protected an early 4-0 lead built around home runs by Brady Anderson and Melvin Mora well enough to emerge as the first find of a 12-14 season.
Indeed, last night represented a feel-good convergence for the Orioles: Roberts and the Devil Rays. Without either, a respectable start might have deteriorated into what was expected by many from a remade team.
"You see a guy like that and wonder, how did someone let him go?" said left fielder Delino DeShields, whose nine-game hitting streak perished despite him adding a fourth-inning RBI for a 5-2 lead. "I don't even know who he was with, but how'd they let him go?"
The Cincinnati Reds couldn't find roster room for Roberts after last season, just as the Detroit Tigers had been unable to do the year before. The Orioles took a low-risk gamble and have been rewarded with an overpowering 25-year-old rookie who owns three of the starting rotation's six wins. (His fourth came in relief.)
"He's still a young man. He really is. As he learns how to pitch at this level, he's got a chance to get better and better," said manager Mike Hargrove.
Asked about being tied with four others for the league lead in wins - before the Twins' Brad Radke completed his fifth victory shortly after the Orioles game ended - Roberts paused briefly. "I don't know about that," he said. "I like to stay in the pack."
The early lead against Devil Rays starting pitcher Paul Wilson (1-3) was helped by four early walks, Anderson's 44th leadoff home run and Mora's mastery of the fourth-year franchise. Since coming to the Orioles from the New York Mets last July 28, all of Mora's three home runs have been against Tampa Bay.
The Orioles exit April with a league-low .228 batting average, but they've also refused to bury themselves with sloppy defense and poor handling of situations. Their 13 errors entering their 26th game were more than only the Seattle Mariners. They have allowed six unearned runs, tied for fourth-fewest in the league behind Seattle, Minnesota and Kansas City.
"We felt our defense was going to be much improved over last year, and it has," said Hargrove, citing names up and down the lineup. "We've caught the balls we were supposed to catch and we've made some great plays on some that were due to increased range. Without us being able to catch the ball the way we have, I don't know where we'd be right now."
Probably swimming with the Devil Rays.
The staggering Rays saw Roberts (three walks, one hit batter) at less than his best and it didn't matter. Rookie relieves Chad Paronto and Ryan Kohlmeier finished with three innings of one-hit relief, Kohlmeier pitching a perfect ninth for his fifth save. For Roberts, it was a fist-pumping night of imprecise command forgiven by several narrow escapes. The Orioles, meanwhile, reached Wilson for five runs in 6 1/3 innings.
Already on their second manager and second managing partner of the season, the Devil Rays entered last night with a major league-high 31 errors, more than double their previous high of 13 for April. A year ago they didn't commit their 31st error until their 44th game on May 23.
The Devil Rays committed error No. 32 during the fourth inning and were spared miscues on consecutive calls only by a generous scorer.
The Orioles responded to the Devil Rays' two-run fourth inning against Roberts by benefiting from the 31st unearned run allowed by the last-place Rays. Shortstop Felix Martinez primed a two-out rally by fielding Jerry Hairston's neat grounder then firing into the photographer's well behind first base. (Hairston also interrupted a 4-for-40 slide with his first multi-hit game since Opening Day.)
More defensive hijinks followed when Anderson chopped a grounder to third base that Vinny Castilla gloved then heaved low and late to first base. First baseman Fred McGriff failed to come up with the throw but Castilla was spared an error - and Anderson given an odd RBI - when Hairston was judged to have never broken stride. Devil Rays manager Hal McRae lifted Martinez in the fifth inning.
"He looked fatigued, physically or mentally," McRae said. "He was playing like he was tired, so I'm going to give him a day off tomorrow."
Roberts seemed intent on maintaining suspense in a game the Orioles otherwise controlled. Three times after receiving a 4-0 lead Roberts allowed the first two hitters in an inning to reach. In each instance, he contributed to the jam with a walk.
Roberts escaped the third inning unscathed by inducing a ground ball and back-to-back strikeouts, punctuating both with a pumped fist.
"Different people express their intensity in different ways," Hargrove said. "Willis is just a little more up front about it and out in the open. Sometimes that doesn't go over well with the other dugout. I've certainly been there and watched pitchers do the same thing to my players. There's no malice in it. He's just excited about doing his job. We had discussions with him in spring training about toning it down, but it's really something he doesn't realize he's doing. It's just the way he expresses himself."
The fourth inning proved more difficult for the demonstrative Roberts after Ben Grieve doubled to break a 4-for-26 funk against the Orioles this season and Greg Vaughn walked.
After falling behind McGriff, Roberts fed the Rays first baseman an outside fastball that he drove into the left-center-field gap. DeShields made a diving attempt, gloving the shot briefly, then fumbling it before hitting the ground. Before DeShields could retrieve and throw, Grieve scored and Vaughn took third. From there, Vaughn scored on Jose Guillen's two-strike grounder against a relaxed infield to make it a 4-2 game.
The Orioles' unearned run became bigger when the Devil Rays again threatened in the sixth inning due to Grieve's leadoff hit and a walk to Vaughn. Roberts hurt himself further by hitting Castilla with one out. The extra base for the lead runner resulted in a run when Guillen drove a sacrifice fly to deep right field, bringing the Devil Rays within 5-3. There, it ended.
"He's got a good arm. He's pitched well against us both times," McRae said. "Tonight we didn't take advantage of his wildness."
Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: CSN/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Devil Rays' Bryan Rekar (0-3, 5.14) vs. Orioles' Jason Johnson (1-2, 4.67)