Even with an excellent on-field start to the 2011 season, the Orioles couldn’t escape a swift kick to the gut on Opening Night for the second straight year.
Jeremy Guthrie pitched eight shutout innings in a 4-1 win over star pitcher David Price and the Rays on Friday night, but the positive vibes dissipated quickly with the news of Brian Matusz being placed on the disabled list. A strained intercostal muscle will reportedly sideline the young lefty for three to six weeks, leaving a huge hole in the starting rotation.
Last year, it was Mike Gonzalez blowing a ninth-inning lead in a 4-3 loss to the Rays, but this year’s buzzkill may prove to be more costly. Chris Tillman will start in Matusz’s place Saturday while top pitching prospect Zach Britton will be called up to make his major league debut Sunday afternoon in the series finale.
The news ruined a perfect start to the season for the Orioles as Guthrie turned in one of the finest pitching performances of his career. Effectively using his off-speed pitches to keep Tampa Bay hitters guessing all night, the Orioles’ lone veteran starter allowed just four baserunners while striking out six before being lifted after throwing 94 pitches in eight innings. Guthrie attacked the strike zone aggressively, throwing first-pitch strikes to 19 of the 27 batters he faced.
Despite the seemingly annual criticism for his de facto ace status and his not-so-impressive peripheral stats, Guthrie continues to prove doubters wrong. The soon-to-be 32-year-old picked up where he left off in the second half last season when he went 8-4 with a 2.76 earned run average in 14 starts.
Guthrie received all the run support he needed from the Orioles’ two longest-tenured position players, as Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis each drove in two runs. Markakis’ opposite-field single plated the first run of the game in the third, and Roberts’ two-run triple drove in Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy in the fifth. In one night, the Orioles quadrupled their run output against Price to that of a season ago when the power-throwing lefty allowed one run in 15 innings against Baltimore.
The only blemish on the field came when reliever Jim Johnson gave up a solo shot to Ben Zobrist on the first pitch of the bottom of the ninth, ending the Orioles’ bid for a shutout. Johnson recovered to retire the next three batters to finish off the victory and erase the memory of Gonzalez’s collapse in the opening game a year ago.
If that had been the final newsworthy occurrence of the night, Orioles fans would be feeling just fine. It doesn’t count any more — or any less — than the next 161 games, but it sure feels good winning on Opening Day.
But reality sets in Saturday night with a big dark cloud hanging over the starting rotation.
A group already short on experience with veteran Justin Duchscherer starting the season on the disabled list will now look to Tillman and Britton — two young men who were vying for the fifth starter job in spring training — to match up against James Shields and Wade Davis, two stalwarts in the Tampa Bay rotation. Tillman’s struggles are well documented, and we’ve yet to see him come close to living up to the hype created by his impressive minor league numbers.
On the other hand, Britton’s debut creates much excitement due to his fantastic spring and being voted the club’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2010. History says the sinker-throwing lefty will face some bumps in the road before he figures it out in the big leagues, but his early promotion will definitely grab attention.
It will also start his service clock, something the Orioles were trying to avoid until later this month to maintain an extra year of control down the road.
We’ll see if the young pitchers are up to the challenge now that the headliner of the group is sidelined for the next month. Fortunately, there’s a far more potent lineup behind them this season.
Because it won’t be easy.
Make no mistake, Orioles fans can — and should — feel good about Friday night’s result. A win on Opening Day is good for the baseball soul, especially in Baltimore.
It’s just a shame it came with an all-too-familiar dose of bad news.