BALTIMORE — Brian Roberts doesn’t like to think about last year’s home opener.
After leaving the game in the top of the second inning against the Toronto Blue Jays (a 7-6 loss thanks to a Mike Gonzalez meltdown of epic proportions) with the same back injury that had hindered him the entire spring, Roberts wouldn’t return to the Orioles lineup for over three months.
While rehabbing the herniated disc in Sarasota last spring as the Orioles got off to one of their worst starts in franchise history, Roberts occasionally pondered whether his health would ever allow him to regain his status as one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball.
"Not ability wise. There were times where certainly I got frustrated with my body, but ability wise, I knew if I was healthy I could still play. I’m not 80 (laughing)."
The Orioles missed the 33-year-old’s bat as they stumbled to a 30-65 record last season before the veteran second baseman returned to the lineup on July 23. Manager Buck Showalter has been credited with the club’s remarkable 34-23 finish in the final two months, but the corresponding return of Roberts played a big part in making Showalter look even smarter in his new role.
That’s why panic sirens sounded again this spring when neck pain and back spasms limited Roberts for two and a half weeks in spring training. His presence in the lineup over the last decade has done so much for an Orioles team lacking the punch to score runs consistently.
If the first four games of the season are any indication, Roberts is making a strong claim to put a difficult season behind him. The second baseman’s three-run homer in the bottom of the fifth was the difference in the Orioles’ 5-1 victory over the Detroit Tigers, giving the club its first 4-0 start since 1997. Roberts’ eight runs batted in leads the major leagues and puts the 5-foot-9 infielder on pace for 324 RBI this season.
Despite early stats that resemble something seen in a video game, Roberts is far more excited about the club’s red-hot start in the win column after being a member of 10 straight losing teams as the longest-tenured player on the Orioles.
"It’s been awesome," he said. "Certainly, I’ve been through a lot. We all know that, and I think with [the team’s] expectations coming into this year, to still go out there and do that — it’s been great for us."
Despite the offseason acquisitions of Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero to add beef to the heart of the order, Roberts has been the one to pace the offense, providing game-changing hits on Friday and Saturday in Tampa and breaking the 1-1 tie on Monday afternoon. His three-run drive over the right-center fence in front of a sold-out crowd of 46,593 at Camden Yards came on a 1-2 pitch from Detroit starter Rick Porcello.
"For a long time in the Baltimore Orioles organization, he seems to be able, on the field, to dial up what was needed, whether it was a stolen base, a walk," Showalter said. "He’s got just a feel for being able to challenge the moment. He’s already had some big hits for us early in the year."
He’s a major reason why the Orioles are off to their best start in 14 years. Respected by his teammates as a disciplined player willing to set the table for the heart of the order, his absence at the top of the lineup last year led to a trickle-down effect in which the Orioles were 11th in on-base percentage and 13th in runs scored in the American League.
With the likes of low on-base percentage hitters such as Adam Jones, Corey Patterson, and Cesar Izturis hitting at the top of the order, the Orioles never recovered in the 103 games Roberts was out of the lineup.
"When he’s healthy, he’s what gets the offense started," said starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, who pitched six innings and gave up one earned run to earn the victory. "As we’ve all seen in these first four games, when he gets on base, that allows Nick [Markakis] to do what he does. He’s just a hitting machine. He’s come up huge for us."
The other aspect of the game coming up big for the Orioles has been the starting pitching, which was dealt another blow Monday when it was announced Jeremy Guthrie had been hospitalized with a case of pneumonia and will miss Wednesday’s start against the Tigers. Brad Bergesen will start in his place. Despite the absence of Brian Matusz and Justin Duchscherer — both on the 15-day disabled list — Baltimore’s starting pitching has combined to give up only two earned runs in 26 innings this season.
Arrieta was just the latest young starter to provide a quality start, allowing six hits, striking out three, and walking two despite struggling with his command at several points. The 25-year-old took notice of the work of Chris Tillman and Zach Britton over the weekend as he prepared to make the start in the home opener.
"It’s just one of those things where you want to kind of follow their lead," Arrieta said. "They set the tone the first three games, obviously started by Guthrie with his quality start. We just want to take the ball and run with it."
As concern mounts over the state of the starting rotation with three projected starters currently dealing with ailments, that pace will become more difficult to maintain, but it’s made for the most enjoyable start in Baltimore in quite some time.
And for a player like Roberts who’s been around to endure the losing nearly as long as Orioles fans, it’s a welcome change from the status quote, even if it’s short-lived.
"Coming off those two months last year, I felt like this city was excited, our team was excited, and it was an incredible atmosphere out there today," Roberts said.
To simply be able to finish the game was quite a contrast to the disappointment-filled home opener for Roberts last April and the disastrous first four months that followed for the Orioles.
What a difference a year makes.
Visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault to hear Brian Roberts, Buck Showalter, Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, and Derrek Lee talk about the Orioles’ 5-1 victory over Detroit in the 20th home opener at Camden Yards.