Rick Sutcliffe looked like he owned the place.
The newest and oldest member of the Orioles starting rotation took the mound in the first regular-season game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards yesterday and did not relinquish the stage until ** he had stolen the show.
Sutcliffe pitched a five-hitter and defeated the Cleveland Indians, 2-0, to make the grand opening grander than anyone among the sellout crowd of 44,568 had a right to expect.
It was short. The two-hour, two-minute game equaled the shortest Orioles opener in history, first accomplished in the franchise opener in 1954.
It was sweet. It was the first time an Orioles pitcher threw a complete game in the club's home opener since Dave McNally shut out the Milwaukee Brewers in 1973.
It was just what the manager ordered when he named Sutcliffe the Opening Day starter a week earlier.
"What I saw today, I've seen a lot of times," manager John Oates said. "He has pitched a lot of big games just like that. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't surprised by the shutout, but I shouldn't have been surprised. I've seen him do that too many times before."
Sutcliffe seized the day, but he gave away the game ball. He accepted it from catcher Chris Hoiles moments after striking out Paul Sorrento to cap one of the most important days in Orioles history, then handed it over to Oates in a symbolic show of gratitude for the starting assignment.
"I wouldn't be here if not for John Oates," Sutcliffe said. "They gave me the game ball and I gave it to him. There was a feeling there. Just a look. We were almost teary-eyed.
"I can't say enough about the guy. It's his first [managing] job. It's the first game in this stadium. He put his neck on the line for me. I could have gone out and given up five runs in the first inning and he would have looked pretty bad. I was just happy for the opportunity."
Oates apparently knew what he was doing. He had pushed for Sutcliffe over the winter because he knew that his youthful starting rotation needed a leader. He named Sutcliffe the Opening Day starter because he knew that the pressure wouldn't affect him.
What he couldn't know for sure was whether Sutcliffe was healthy after two years of shoulder problems. As it turned out, Sutcliffe's shoulder held up fine all spring, but he had to weather food poisoning before he could take the ball for yesterday's game.
Seven members of the club came down with stomach cramps and severe nausea after Saturday's exhibition game at RFK Stadium. Sutcliffe was still suffering on Sunday and spent 15 hours in bed before getting up yesterday morning to come to the ballpark.
No problem. He looked fine to everyone but the Indians, who managed just one hit through the first four innings and never pushed a runner past second base. The shutout was his first since June 22, 1989, when he blanked the Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-0. The complete game was his first since July 31 of the same year, when he went the distance in a 10-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.
This time, he didn't have the luxury of such a big lead. Indians right-hander Charles Nagy also pitched a complete game, giving up six hits over eight innings to take a loss he probably didn't deserve. He faltered in only one inning, but one bad inning was one too many.
Hoiles provided all the offensive support Sutcliffe would need with a ground-rule double to left-center in the fifth that scored Sam Horn and sent Leo Gomez to third. The ball landed on the rubber warning track and bounded over the wall, probably costing the Orioles a second run. But Bill Ripken dropped a perfect suicide squeeze bunt down the third-base line to bring Gomez home and give Sutcliffe a little more room to work.
He worked quickly, giving up just two singles the rest of the way to lock up his first American League victory since he was traded from the Indians to the Chicago Cubs during the 1984 season.
"This is going to be one of the great moments for myself and for everybody," Sutcliffe said, "but I haven't proven anything yet. This is just one game. We're 1-0 and we're right where we want to be. But, I have to put together a great year -- not just a great game. Then I'll have proven that I can still pitch."
His teammates don't need much more proof. Hoiles spent the entire game behind the plate and was particularly impressed with the way Sutcliffe carried himself on the mound.
"We worked well together, but when a guy throws a five-hit shutout, all the credit goes to him," Hoiles said. "He knew what he wanted to do. He's got so many different pitches to get a guy out with. He'll show you so many different looks. He knows how to start and finish a hitter, and that's what he did all day long. When he needed a big out, he got it."