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Reality bites

The Baltimore Sun

Everybody warned you that this could be bad. But, understandably and to your credit, you believed.

Not enough to fill Camden Yards yesterday, despite what the official announcement told you, but you were ready to buy what the Orioles were selling. Deep down somewhere within you where you actually do bleed orange and black, you probably thought, just for a fleeting moment, "Why not?"

Today? You know why not.

It's not that Opening Day was extraordinarily wretched. It was just a 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, not a 30-to-3-level embarrassment; nor did anything happen to rekindle memories of 1988. But it served notice, fast and hard, that everything that has been predicted about the Orioles' having to hit bottom before they can start moving up has enormous potential to come true.

Starting rotation in flux? Sure looked that way, because Jeremy Guthrie was not on his game, and until the rotation takes some shape, he's the staff ace.

Solid, smart situational hitting? They got it the first time around, when they scored those two first-inning runs, but it failed them late, even with the game still in reach.

The new shortstop? Luis Hernandez made some excellent plays and just missed on a few more, but overall he looked like the first-time full-time starter that he is.

Pop in the middle of the order? Not bad, but for now, not enough, either. Aubrey Huff's ears might pop by month's end from the home-crowd booing, though. Again, nice first-inning clutch hitting by Nick Markakis and Kevin Millar, but only then.

The kinds of lucky breaks a team like this needs to exceed expectations and give it an unexpected push? Not on this day. Something kept long balls out of the stands early on, balls that could have changed the nature of the game right away. The official signal for the fans' surrender came in the eighth, on the strikeout-batter's interference on Melvin Mora, after which the aisles began to fill and the parking lots began to empty.

It was actually a pretty short day, just a 2 1/2 -hour game. But the way it all unfolded, it looks like it'll be a long season.

To the Orioles' credit, there was a sense of realism in the clubhouse. Adam Jones, for example, showed off his outfield talents on Carlos Pena's rocket to the top of the center-field wall in the first - but he also took an 0-fer in his first real game as an Oriole. Dave Trembley, though, had Jones' back in his post-game comments, Jones' and all of his youngsters'.

They appreciate that, Jones said, but he knows yesterday was only the first of many times such backing will be needed.

"It's tough, it's real tough," Jones said. "Down in the minors, I never really won. But I know with the young guys, coming in here every day, to play in a big league stadium, if you're not excited to play and ready to bust your butt, then you've come to the wrong sport."

Guthrie said: "Dave has confidence in everybody here so that we don't have to press. We understand that it is a process. Most of us are very young, so he doesn't put any pressure on us to perform right away."

Quite the opposite, actually - when asked about hitters hacking at first pitches with runners on base and pitchers vulnerable, Trembley said: "I've got no problem with guys being aggressive starting the season." Certainly in public he was not dwelling on the final score or on the missed opportunities.

On the other hand, he sent a message that Huff, feeling the wrath from his R-rated radio insult-fest against the city last winter, had better be ready to handle that wrath and still do his job. "The fans have every right to receive anybody in this ballpark any way they want," Trembley said. "Huff's here to play baseball, the fans are here to watch the game and support their team any way they want."

It was the first chance, with the games counting, for Trembley to put in motion his mandate to play and act professionally, no matter what. Yesterday made it clear that it will be tested.

The fans, meanwhile, are not required to be as patient as the players are. The ones who showed were as supportive as could be, but they left unhappy and they cut their wayward designated hitter no slack. As for the ones who didn't show, the Orioles have to be ready to handle that often, too.

There can, and apparently will, be a lot of days like yesterday. If you weren't sure before, you ought to be now.

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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