Well, that felt a little too familiar. Clinging to a 3-2 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth, the Orioles handed the ball to new closer Mike Gonzalez with the bottom of the Rays' lineup coming to bat. Gonzalez got off to a good start by striking out Pat Burrell but then allowed the next four batters to reach base -- Sean Rodriguez singled, pinch-hitter Kelly Shoppach doubled (and missed a home run by a few feet), Jason Bartlett was intentionally walked, and Carl Crawford, with the bases loaded, doubled to right field, knocking in two runs to give the Rays a dramatic 4-3 win over the Orioles on Opening Day.
Now, it would be easy to simply blame Gonzalez for the loss since he's the one who gave up the lead. But the Orioles missed a handful of opportunities throughout the game to extend the lead and put the game away for good. The Orioles did this a lot last year, and it came back to hurt them many times. Good teams tack on runs and take advantage of scoring chances.
Sure, it was the first game, but the O's left 10 runners on base and were 1-12 with runners in scoring position. Brian Roberts and Miguel Tejada, who each went 0-5, were both 0-3 with runners in scoring position. The two best chances for the O's to add some runs occurred in the top of the fourth and the top of the ninth.
In the fourth, after Luke Scott led off the inning with a towering home run to right center to put the O's up 2-0, Matt Wieters singled and Felix Pie doubled, putting runners on second and third with no outs. Then Garrett Atkins popped up to second, Cesar Izturis grounded out to first, and Brian Roberts lined out to center field. Neither Atkins nor Izturis were able to hit a fly ball or a ground ball up the middle, and Wieters and Pie were stranded.
Leading 3-2 in the ninth, the Orioles failed to capitalize on another rally attempt. Atkins led off the inning with a double. Up next, Izturis, trying to move Atkins to third with a sacrifice bunt, managed to reach first somehow by hustling down the line (First base coach John Shelby was rather pleased with Izturis on the play). Unfortunately, Atkins was thrown out at home after Roberts hit a grounder to third. After an Adam Jones ground out and a Nick Markakis walk to load the bases, Tejada worked a full count before lining out to left field. To be fair, it would be pretty difficult for anyone to hit the ball harder than Tejada did, but the ball was still caught. So not only did the Orioles fail to score to extend the lead, but they let Rays closer Rafael Soriano, who never really looked comfortable during the inning, off the hook.
But besides the loss (obviously the most important thing), things weren't all bad for the O's. They actually looked pretty good for it being Opening Day, when many teams look sloppy. The O's didn't commit an error and didn't look bad in the field. Markakis threw out a runner at home, picking up right where he left off from last season in terms of outfield assists. Tejada had a few chances at third -- and not all of them looked rather easy for him -- but he still made the plays. On offense, the O's had 11 hits, and all three of their runs came on solo homers by Jones, Scott, and Wieters. Jones had three hits, Markakis had a hit and two walks, and Wieters and Izturis collected two hits apiece.
Kevin Millwood gave up two runs and nine hits in five innings and looked pretty sharp until he started the sixth inning, when he allowed a leadoff home run to Evan Longoria and two singles to Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton. Matt Albers relieved Millwood and did a fantastic job, getting Burrell to ground into a double play and then striking out Rodriguez. Albers, Will Ohman, and Jim Johnson combined for three scoreless innings, but their solid work was erased by Gonzalez's unfortunate ninth inning.
On most nights, a similar performance by the O's will be good enough to win. But the offense has to tack on runs when given the chance. Gonzalez is a decent closing option, but it's hard to be 100 percent confident in any closer with just a one run lead.