The path that brought Nelson Cruz to the orange carpet for Opening Day introductions at Camden Yards on Monday afternoon wasn't the one he imagined months ago when he became a free agent. But if there was any doubt in his mind whether he landed in the right place, those questions were answered quickly.
As Cruz ran down the carpet before the Orioles' season opener against the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, Baltimore welcomed him with the long, exaggerated chant of his last name — "Cruuuuuzzzz" — a sound he had heard for several years from adoring fans in his former home ballpark playing for the Texas Rangers.
"A shock," Cruz later called it.
The cheer also came before his first at-bat. It came after he made a jumping catch in front of the left-field wall in the second inning, and the chant was at its loudest when Cruz gave the announced sellout crowd of 46,685 the biggest hit of the afternoon — a solo homer in the seventh-inning that proved to be the game-winner in a tightly contested 2-1 win for the Orioles over the Red Sox at Camden Yards.
"It was really neat, it was special," Cruz said of the crowd's reaction. "I think I made the right call to come and be part of this organization, be part of this town. Hopefully now I can do some other stuff to contribute for the team."
The win was the Orioles' fourth straight Opening Day victory. They've won their last five season openers against Boston.
All Opening Days have their share of emotion, but this year's was different. The Orioles' free-agent spending spree in February, which included signing Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal, created extra buzz and anticipation. And the intensity of the game — one between two American League East contenders — from the first out to the last had the feel of a late-September matchup.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter wore a black feather on his jacket that was given to him by the family of late public relations director Monica Barlow, who passed away hours before the team's first spring training game in February after a 41/2-year battle with lung cancer. That day, Showalter poignantly said that the Oriole bird had "lost a feather" in Barlow's passing. Players were given orange wristbands with Barlow's name on them to wear as her family watched the game from the Showalter family's suite.
"A lot of emotion, not only with what we went through for the last couple of months, but just going back to last year," Orioles first baseman Chris Davis said. "The way things ended kind of left a bad taste in our mouths. So to come out here and get a chance to play the defending world champs, it was so good for us to get a win on Opening Day."
On the field, Cruz perfectly played the role of hero in his first game with his new team, turning on a 91 mph fastball from Boston starter Jon Lester, sending the first pitch of the bottom of the seventh inning deep into a sea of orange in the left-field stands.
"You always try to dream about a good start," Cruz said. "I think the dream came true."
With two runners on base and no outs in the second inning of a scoreless game, Cruz also made a jumping catch just in front of the left-field fence on a rocket by Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts. He also scored both of the Orioles' runs, including the first one after he battled back from a 0-2 count to draw a leadoff walk in the bottom of the second inning.
"I wasn't surprised," Davis said of Cruz. "That's the kind of caliber of player he is. I was excited in spring training when we signed him, and with good reason."
When the offseason began, Cruz was one of the top power hitters on the free-agent market and hoped for a multiyear deal even though he was coming off a season in which he served a 50-game suspension for involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. He waited while the free-agent market slowed before settling for a one-year deal with the Orioles.
The win continued the Orioles' recent dominance of the Red Sox.
Even though Lester — Boston's ace — allowed just two runs over seven innings Monday, the Orioles have now won eight of the past nine games that Lester has started (Lester won his first 14 career decisions against Baltimore) dating back to the 2011 regular-season finale that helped knock the Red Sox out of the postseason race.
Including that game, the Orioles are 25-13 in their last 38 games against Boston.
Cruz would be the only Orioles base runner to reach third base against Lester over the first six innings before taking the first pitch of the seventh out of the ballpark.
The Orioles bullpen tossed four scoreless innings in relief of right-hander Chris Tillman, who left the game after allowing one run over five innings with 104 pitches. Four different relievers combined to hold a dangerous Red Sox lineup scoreless through the late innings, and new closer Tommy Hunter overcame a hit batter to open the ninth inning to earn the save.
After Hunter's third pitch of the game — a 96 mph fastball — hit Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks in the back of the left shoulder, the Orioles closer had to battle through the top of the Boston batting order.
Hunter induced a popup to the left side of the mound from outfielder Daniel Nava, but then yielded a single to second baseman Dustin Pedroia to put the tying run at second base with one out.
But Hunter retired designated hitter David Ortiz, who had three home career homers against him, on a long fly out to left field and struck out right fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. to win the game.
"It's life in baseball," 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."
The Red Sox were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
"They are going to get their hits," said left-hander Zach Britton, who retired six of the seven batters he faced in two scoreless innings. "But if you can pitch out of those jams, then you are going to win the games like you did today.
"That's our game. Pitch well. Starter does well, bullpen comes in and picks them [up]. … And the offense comes up with a big hit, like Nellie [did], and our defense was outstanding like usual."
Tillman, the Orioles' fifth different Opening Day starter in as many seasons, worked ahead of hitters throughout the afternoon, but he fell into some deep counts against the Red Sox and left with the game tied at 1.
The 25-year-old Tillman allowed seven hits but stranded eight Boston base runners, striking out four and walking one.
The Red Sox tied the score in the fourth inning on Grady Sizemore's solo home run that landed over the out-of-town scoreboard in right field, his first major league homer since July 15, 2011.
"It was a grind," Tillman said. "They put together some good at-bats, they battled me all the way through. Fortunately, we were able to make some pitches. It was one of those days, kind of had a feeling it'd be a grind all day. Good to come out on top."
Britton, who dominated this spring out of the bullpen, pounded his mid-90s sinker to get six groundball outs in the sixth and seventh innings, and left-hander Brian Matusz stranded runners at first and second in the eighth by inducing a comebacker from left-handed hitter A.J. Pierzynski.
As for Cruz, his new teammates are more than happy to have him in the middle of a lineup that was already one of baseball's best.
"He's a good guy to have around," Tillman said of Cruz. "It's fun to watch. First game as an Oriole, he's able to put a run on the board for us with that big swing. It's pretty cool. I enjoy seeing that kind of stuff. He's good. I'm glad he's on our team now. Don't have to face him."
And Cruz received another welcome following the game, when he received a shaving cream pie to the face from Adam Jones during his postgame television interview — a common occurrence during big wins the past two seasons.
"[It was] totally different," Cruz said. "New team, new teammates, new fans. I think God blessed me today. He gave me the chance to drive in the winning run, make some good plays. I think, all-around, it was a great game. Great pitching, great defense. The fans, they really enjoy those games."