Baseball BeatApril 05, 2004
Opening Night in the States
By Rich Lederer

Passing the time watching the Boston Red Sox-Baltimore Orioles game Sunday night on ESPN2.

*Top of the first inning. Johnny Damon, looking like the main character in the comic strip B.C., and Bill Mueller both ground out to Miguel Tejada, Baltimore's biggest offseason acquisition. Manny Ramirez comes to bat and lines a pitch on the outside part of the plate to right field for a single. A beautiful piece of hitting. David Ortiz strikes out on a 96-mph fastball by Sidney Ponson.

The Yankees and Devil Rays kicked off the season in Japan and now Baltimore hosts Boston. Has Cincinnati played yet?

*Bottom of the first. Pedro Martinez gets the opening day start for the BoSox. It will be interesting to see how he pitches given his questionable performance during the spring. Baltimore's lineup is introduced, and it looks stronger than the visitors. Granted, Nomar Garciaparra and Trot Nixon are out with injuries but it is what it is.

Jon Miller informs us that Dave Wallace, Boston's pitching coach, says Pedro will be on a 90-pitch count limit. Martinez' first five pitches are all thrown at 88 mph, well below his normal velocity. Brian Roberts grounds out 6-3 and then Melvin Mora hits an infield single on a 79-mph changeup. I'm anxious to see how the Oriole newcomers (Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro, and Javy Lopez--Baltimore's 3-4-5 hitters) perform in their first game together.

Tejada flies out to center field. Johnny Damon throws the ball back to the infield weakly, and it reminds me of a thought I had last October. Has there ever been a worse-throwing group of CF in the final four than Damon, Bernie Williams, Kenny Lofton, and Juan Pierre?

Palmeiro singles to left but Ramirez throws out Mora going from first to third base. Cincinnati shortstop Pokey Reese makes a great play to beat Mora to the bag, and the latter does the unthinkable by running into the final out of the inning at third.

*Top of the second inning. Joe Morgan predicts that Pedro will throw better as the game goes on. Gabe Kapler hits a grounder under Mora's glove. E-5. Count me as a skeptic as to whether Mora can make the transition to 3B. Miller announces that it's the "coldest opener in Oriole history". Speaking of history, I notice the Orioles wearing 50-year anniversary patches on their sleeves. Kapler gets thrown out attempting to steal second base and yells "no way" to the umpire as he walks off the field to end the inning. While it's never wise to make an out on the basepaths, this one is more understandable given that Kapler was trying to get himself in scoring position with two outs.

*Bottom of the second. Lopez hits a first pitch fastball for a line drive home run down the left field line. That one's gotta feel awfully good for the free agent catcher as well as Peter Angelos, the Baltimore owner who stepped up this winter in hopes of making his team more competitive this season. Jay Gibbons singles to right on a 79-mph changeup, then steals second on another change of pace for only the second SB of his career.

With first base open, Martinez drills David Segui in the back. Not surprisingly, the Baltimore fans begin to boo Pedro. Larry Bigbie taps the ball back to the mound, Pedro picks it up, looks at second, and then throws awkwardly and wildly to first. Gibbons scores. Luis Matos singles to left, scoring Segui and sending Bigbie to third. Baltimore 3, Boston 0.

Pedro's start is reminiscent of his opening day performance at Toronto two years ago when he got roughed up for nine hits and eight runs (seven earned) in only three innings. It also harks back to his third start of the season last year in Baltimore when he got knocked around for nine hits and ten runs over 4 1/3 innings. If not for that one outing, Pedro's ERA would have been 1.78 or nearly half a run below his league-low 2.22.

Back to the action on the field. Matos steals second base. Pedro then strikes out Roberts and Mora on 91-mph fastballs (the highest level he's reached on the speed gun thus far) and retires Tejada on a fly out to deep right center field. Damon catches the ball on the run, then jumps toward the crowd in the outfield bleachers, handing the ball to a lucky fan.

*Top of the third inning. Mark Bellhorn comes to the plate, and it occurs to me that he and Todd Walker essentially swapped teams (albeit Bellhorn via a short stay with Colorado in between) without being traded for one another. Bellhorn's walks will be more appreciated by Boston management and Walker's experience is more up Dusty Baker's alley. It might be one of those situations where each player prospers, making both teams happy.

While Reese is drawing a base on balls, ESPN reporter Sam Ryan interviews Bud Selig. She asks him about the controversies surrounding major league baseball's decision to export its opening day to Japan, the outlook for Montreal moving to Washington D.C., and steroids. Selig never looks particularly comfortable in such settings, but he does his best to answer what Ryan probably believes are "hard-hitting" questions.

Damon proceeds to hit a dribbler up the first base line, Ponson fields the ball cleanly, tosses it toward first base, and the ball hits the caveman in his back. The home plate umpire calls Damon out for interfering with the throw. The replay clearly shows that the ump made the correct call despite Damon's protestations. Mueller inside outs a single to left field and Ramirez hits a single off Ponson's leg, driving in Reese. Baltimore 3, Boston 1.

*Bottom of the third. Palmeiro flies out to right field. Seeing Kapler out there makes me think Boston is in for a long year if Nixon doesn't return as expected in May. If the Red Sox were willing to sacrifice defense, they could always put Millar out in right, Ortiz at first base, and Ellis Burks in the DH role. I'm not suggesting these moves as much as I'm pointing out that Boston may not be as strong as generally believed without their full roster healthy.

Lopez then singles off the body of Martinez, the sixth hit allowed in just 2 1/3 IP. Pedro then induces Gibbons to hit into a 4-6-3 inning-ending double play. After three innings, Martinez has thrown 58 pitches and is looking like someone who will be lucky to get in six innings tonight.

*Top of the fourth inning. With two outs, Bellhorn doubles to right and Kapler fails to score. Reese comes up with runners on second and third and bunts--yes, bunts--the ball back to Ponson, who makes a poor underhanded toss that Palmeiro digs out to end the inning.

*Bottom of the fourth. The Dodgers-Indians trade involving Milton Bradley is scrolling along the bottom of my TV screen. I think this is a good trade for both franchises. Bradley gives the Dodgers a young, talented CF who can hit third, while the Indians pick up Franklin Gutierrez, a 21-year-old OF who was the Dodgers' minor league player of the year in 2003. During the inning, Martinez strikes out Matos, looking like the Pedro of old.

*Top of the fifth inning. Damon grounds out 4-3 and is now oh-fer-three for the evening. Mueller has his third good at bat, slapping a single to left field. Ramirez lines to center and Matos throws behind the runner, trying to beat Mueller scrambling back to first. Ortiz comes to the plate, looking like a 1990s version of Mo Vaughn. He gets hit in the leg with the pitch despite a valiant attempt to get out of the way. Ponson then overpowers Millar, striking him out to end the inning.

*Bottom of the fifth. Cal Ripken joins Miller and Morgan in the booth, primarily to promote his new book Play Baseball The Ripken Way. Morgan asks Cal if he can teach kids to play every day--at least for 10 years, apparently referring to Ripken's consecutive games streak (which, hello Joe, actually lasted 17 years ... but who's counting, right?). Tejada gets his first hit as an Oriole on a full-swinging bunt. Upon questioning, Ripken concedes that he may wish to come back as a manager or coach some day, but he appears to be in no hurry to return until his 14-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son are grown.

*Top of the sixth inning. Miller mentions that Babe Ruth grew up in Baltimore and played for a minor league team in town before he was sold to Boston. A timely piece of Baltimore-Boston trivia. Jason Varitek hits into a 4-6-3 DP with Palmeiro making another nice scoop at first. Ponson throws his 100th pitch of the evening while walking Bellhorn. I've got to think that this will be his last inning even though he's still hitting 93-94 on the speed guns.

Reese comes to the plate and Morgan admits that he thought Pokey was going to be a good hitter when he was playing for Cincinnati because the same hand/eye coordination that makes him such a noted defensive player is what should make him a good hitter as well. I'm shaking my head on this one as I think of dozens of similarly gifted no-hit, good-field players. Ponson walks Reese and is replaced by Rodrigo Lopez with two outs and runners on first and second.

Miller and Morgan question the choice of the righthanded-throwing Lopez over the lefty Buddy Groom, who is also warming up in the bullpen, given that Damon and Mueller are due up for Boston. A quick check of the splits shows that LHB and RHB both ripped Lopez equally last year and Damon appears not to be affected by one more than the other. Damon then grounds out to short on a nice play by a charging Tejada.

*Bottom of the sixth. Martinez delivers the first pitch of the inning and 84th of the game wide right to Gibbons, who later grounds out to short. Ramirez makes a nice running catch in shallow left on a ball hit by Segui. Pedro throws three straight balls to Bigbie, then three consecutive strikes--the last on a questionable call that appeared to be low and/or outside. Martinez throws 93 pitches and is congratulated in the dugout for a workmanlike opening-day performance (six innings, seven hits, three runs, only two earned, one walk, and five strikeouts). Pedro gets credited with a quality start whereas Ponson (5 2/3 IP and only one run) doesn't. So much for the credibility of that stat.

*Top of the seventh inning. Mueller leads off with his third single of the game. Ramirez grounds into a 4-6-3 DP with another fine play by Tejada turning two. Ortiz launches a long foul ball down the right field line that just misses being a home run. He then draws a base on balls for the second time. I think Ortiz's OBP may go up this year because it wouldn't surprise me if he adds at least 20 BB to last year's total. However, I think his SLG will drop owing to the likelihood of more at bats early in the season and against more lefties (.216/.260/.414 in 2003) due to an overall increase in playing time. Millar then flies out to end the inning.

*Bottom of the seventh. Mike Timlin enters the game and strikes out Matos on a pitch in the dirt. Sam Ryan interviews Ponson in the Orioles clubhouse, the first time MLB has granted permission for such exchanges during the course of a game. I think that is a nice touch. I also like the idea of miking players (in this case Reese, who asked Palmeiro when he reached first base earlier in the game if Ripken was in the ballpark because he was hopeful of meeting him).

Roberts walks and is caught stealing second. Mora also walks. Tejada fights off an inside pitch and singles to right. Palmeiro, who Morgan says is 220 hits from becoming only the fourth player in history to reach 500 HR and 3000 H, singles through the hole vacated by the shortstop as a result of a shift which puts three infielders between first and second base. The replay shows Raffy looking more like Wee Willie Keeler ("Hit 'em where they ain't") than Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, or Eddie Murray--the other three in the 500/3000 club.

Lopez doubles to deep right center field between a confused Damon and Kapler, knocking in two more runs. Baltimore 6, Boston 1. Exit stage left for Timlin with a 40.50 ERA to work off at the gym. Alan Embree, Boston's designated LOOGY, comes in and retires Gibbons. LOOGY stands for a "Lefthanded One Out Guy". I think the acronymn would be better if it were "Lefthanded One Out Get Yanked" but nobody asked me.

*Top of the eighth inning. Mike DeJean loads the bases and is relieved by B.J. Ryan. Damon grounds into a 6-4 force play, scoring the runner from third and getting credited with a run batted in. This is another reason why RBI is an overrated stat. Team dependent and not nearly as valuable when exchanged for a precious out. In any event, Baltimore now leads 6-2.

*Bottom of the eighth. Scott Williamson enters the game. Segui hits a bouncer that glances off the outside of the first base bag for a gift double. Bigbie strikes out looking for the second time. Matos reaches base on a throwing error by Boston SS Cesar Crespo allowing the pinch runner Jose Bautista to score from second. Fans of the Red Sox Nation must be muttering to themselves about now, praying for Garciaparra's stay on the DL to be as short as possible. Roberts and Mora both ground out to end the inning.

*Top of the ninth inning. After Ryan retires the first two hitters, Millar and Kapler reach base on Boston's 10th and 11th hits and 18th and 19th base runners of the evening. Ryan, in hopes of becoming more than just a LOOGY to Baltimore, Ks Varitek to end the game. Boston fans spit. Baltimore 7, Boston 2. The Orioles are now in first place in the A.L. East with a 1-0 record and the Red Sox are in last place at 0-1.

What's that saying? Hope springs eternal? Well, no matter how they look on paper, you gotta play the games on the field. Play ball!