The Orioles bagged their fourth consecutive Opening Day victory with a well-played, hard-fought 2-1 decision against the defending World Series champion Red Sox.
Perhaps most impressive was that the Birds eked out the win despite a mediocre performance by starting pitcher Chris Tillman and an excellent one by opposing hurler Jon Lester. Nelson Cruz provided the offensive edge the O's needed with a go-ahead home run leading off the seventh inning, while the Birds' bullpen put up a strong performance to hold down the fort, working four scoreless innings, capped by Tommy Hunter's nail-biting save.
Let's look at the highlights from the Birds' opener.
During the game, I wrote about Nelson Cruz's offensive performance in the second inning, when he worked a walk and got a good read on a bloop single. Little did I know the best was yet to come. Cruz broke a 1-1 tie in the seventh inning when he blasted a homer into the left-field seats. Cruz made an impression during his first game as an Oriole.
"It was really neat," Cruz said. "I tried to dream about a cool start. I think it's a dream come true."
Lester, who has long overpowered the Orioles, was otherwise dominant. He racked up eight strikeouts in seven innings, and Cruz's homer was the only extra-base hit he allowed.
"I was looking for a pitch I could drive, especially a fastball," Cruz said. "The first two at bats, I think the first two pitches were strikes."
If Opening Day was any indication, Cruz is already a hit with the fans. The sellout crowd of 46,685 serenaded him with "Cruuuuz" chants several times during the game.
Lester, who was making his fourth Opening Day start, pitched better than Tillman, who was making his first. Tillman threw the same number of pitches as Lester -- 104 -- but pitched two fewer innings, exiting the game after the fifth.
The patient, disciplined plate approach of the Red Sox offense had much to do with that. The Red Sox fouled off countless pitches, extending at bats and inflating Tillman's pitch count.
"It was a grind," Tillman said. "This is the way it is all the time with these guys. It's to be expected. Foul pitches off -- that's their game plan. … When I did get ahead, I wasn't able to execute the pitches."
Still, Tillman did an admirable job of pitching out of jams. In the second inning, he retired three batters in a row after the first two reached base. In the third, he worked out of a second-and-third, two-out jam by striking out Mike Carp. The swirling wind might have helped Tillman -- a couple of hard-hit fly balls might have left the ballpark on another night, but landed in outfielders' gloves this time. The only ball that left the park was a Grady Sizemore leadoff homer in the fourth.
For Tillman to limit the Sox to one run in five innings, while lacking his best stuff, was a good sign for him going forward.
Another pitcher who faced a tough task was the Orioles' new closer, Tommy Hunter. Asked to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning, Hunter first had to face Will Middlebrooks -- who homered twice off him during spring training -- and later faced off with David Ortiz with two runners aboard.
Hunter didn't fare so well with Middlebrooks, hitting him with a pitch to lead off the inning, and Dustin Pedroia's single put two on for Ortiz. The matchup of Hunter -- who struggled with left-handed hitters and home runs last year -- against Ortiz, one of the game's best power-hitting lefties, didn't seem to favor Hunter.
But Hunter passed the test, getting Ortiz to fly out to left. He then rung up Jackie Bradley Jr. on strikes to nail down his first save.
"They're a good team," Hunter said of the Red Sox. "They won the World Series, so you know you're going to have your hands full. It's a way of life in baseball, I think. Earn everything you get."
Hunter's fastball was clocked at 99 mph during the Bradley at bat, and he said he had a little bit of extra juice flowing.
"There's a guy at second base," Hunter said. "You've got to dial it up a little bit. Adrenaline picks up a bit."
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said he had been impressed with Hunter's performance.
"He handled it great," Wieters said. "That ninth inning's always going to have that adrenaline, and Tommy loves it."
Not to be lost in Hunter's performance was the job that other O's relievers did. Brian Matusz got the last out of the eighth to strand two runners, while Zach Britton -- pitching in relief -- worked two scoreless innings, getting all six of his outs on grounders. Britton continued the dominance he displayed during spring training, earning the win for his efforts.
"He's in a pretty good place," manager Buck Showalter said of Britton, and today was a big day for him to get off and carry over what he established in the spring. So it bodes well for us pitching well left-handed that can also get some right-handed hitters out."