ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — The second game of the regular season is usually when reality sets in. The euphoria of the season opener is gone, there are more empty seats in the stands and teams begin to realize the monotony of the 162-game schedule ahead of them.
And even though the Orioles jumped out to an early six-run lead on the Tampa Bay Rays Tuesday night -- scripting the makings of a lopsided affair -- they would need every effort to pull out a 6-5 victory in front of an announced 13,906 at Tropicana Field that included just 11 combined hits but took 3 hours, 22 minutes to complete.
Left-hander Wei-Yin Chen didn't make it out of the fifth inning, posting his shortest outing since last June. And despite running out to an early lead, the Orioles had just one hit over the game's final 7 1/3 innings, so they needed some clutch outs from their bullpen, including right-hander Kevin Gausman in his return to relief work.
"We struck early," said first baseman Steve Pearce, whose second homer in as many games gave the Orioles six-run second-inning lead. "We put some runs on the board. I'm glad we did that because we came to a halt. And they made a great comeback and it's just another typical O's-Rays game. … We find ways to win and we win the close ones. For as many as we play, it's good that we are coming out on top."
Pearce's two-run homer in the second inning – the Lakeland native's fifth home run in his past 11 games at Tropicana Field -- gave the Orioles a quick 6-0 lead against Rays starter Nathan Karns. Pearce became the 14th player in Orioles history to homer in consecutive games to start a season, an achievement the Orioles have accomplished the past four seasons (Nelson Cruz in 2014, Chris Davis in 2013 and Nick Markakis in 2012).
The Orioles jumped on Karns early, plating four runs off the right-hander in the first inning. Each of the Orioles' first four hitters recorded hits and scored. The Orioles opened the game with three straight singles, with Travis Snider's RBI single to right plating leadoff man Alejandro De Aza for the game's first run.
Adam Jones followed with a two-run double into the left-center field gap and after advancing to third on a wild pitch, Jones scored on Manny Machado's sacrifice fly to give the Orioles an early 4-0 lead.
Pearce then added to the cushion in the second inning, jumping on an 0-2 delivery from Karns and sending it into the left field seats. Of Pearce's 40 career home runs, he has hit eight against the Rays, his most against any team. In his past 11 games at Tropicana Field, he is hitting .400 (14-for-35) with nine RBIs.
After Pearce's homer, Everth Cabrera's seventh-inning single would be the Orioles' only hit for the rest of the game.
Chen lasted just 4 1/3 innings, his shortest start since last June 28, when he went 3 1/3 innings in a 7-3 loss to Tampa Bay. He needed just eight pitches to retire the side in the first inning, but the Rays then began to work Chen's pitch count up by battling foul balls.
With the Orioles (2-0) up 6-1 in the fourth, Rays first baseman Logan Forsythe capped an 11-pitch at-bat with a two-run homer deep into the left field stands.
"With Wei-Yin, I've seen him two or three times with some leads like that early and he just doesn't seem to stay in attack mode," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "We let them back in it. … Never really had a consistent off speed pitch tonight. But he didn't get the loss and they didn't score more runs than we did while he was in the game. He did some good things, too."
Gausman, back in the bullpen after being pinched out of the starting rotation, replaced Chen in the fifth and stranded the bases loaded. Gausman entered the game with two on and one out after Chen hit Brandon Guyer and walked Steven Souza, Jr., leaning on a fastball that hit 101 mph on the stadium radar gun twice.
Despite issuing a two-out walk to Evan Longoria to load the bases, Gausman induced a weak popup from Desmond Jennings to end the inning.
"I think some of the situations he was in last year, it all plays into it," Showalter said. "He's been exposed to a lot of things like that and it will play well. He was capable of throwing 70 pitches tonight but I want him to take two days and be back for us Friday."
The Rays (0-2) would cut the lead to one off Gausman in the sixth on Kevin Kiermaier's two-run homer to center field. Kiermaier's blast, which came on an elevated 96-mph fastball from Gausman on a 3-1 count, was hit with two outs in the inning.
"It was middle, middle pretty much, 3-1, that's a hitters count," Gausman said. "Probably should have made a better pitch than that. Put a good swing on it. That's really all I can say."
The Orioles loaded the bases with one out in the seventh inning, but Jones hit into an inning-ended double play.
"We had some chances to add on but quality pitching, especially relief pitching, can kind of take away from some of the anxiety of games like that," Showalter said. "You know, at 6-0, nobody thinks the game is over by any chance. We know them. They're going to play hard and keep grinding to it and hats off to them. We were fortunate."
After Gausman (1-0) allowed the Kiermaier homer, the Orioles' bullpen retired the final 10 Tampa Bay batters of the game. Darren O'Day retired all four batters he faced and closer Zach Britton threw a perfect ninth, striking out the side, for his first save of the season.
"I think we're all fans of each other," Gausman said. "I love watching Darren pitch because he's completely different than me, and also watching Britton. The amount of movement he gets on a fastball, it's like a cartoon. It's like a video game. It's crazy."