O's mostly flash signs of success in opener

Club's mental toughness, pitching in 13-inning win bode well for season

April 02, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Baseball teams play 162 of these things, so it's dangerous reading too much into Opening Day and the Orioles' 13-inning victory over the Cleveland Indians.

Yesterday, a lot of fans around the country awoke to a baseball hangover.

Red Sox Nation was screaming, "Closer by committee, my butt!"

Yankees fans were still coming to grips with those images of Derek Jeter writhing in pain.

Mets fans were wishing Tom Glavine had stayed in Atlanta, and Cincinnati fans were thinking, "New ballpark, same old Reds."

The Orioles and Indians played a game that resembled baseball Monday, with moments that were sheer frosty frolics. The outcome was almost decided on Ellis Burks' third-inning, run-scoring single - a ball no one on the field even saw.

And still, there were telling signs for both teams.

Cleveland has a young club, with four players in the starting lineup owning 50 or fewer games of major league experience. Yesterday, the Indians committed four errors, including two by pitchers, and they allowed the tying run to score with two outs in the 12th inning on a passed ball.

"Our guys," Cleveland's first-year manager Eric Wedge said, "will be better for this."

In victory, the Orioles had an easier time dwelling on the positives, but there were some things they liked and some things they didn't like.

Pitching: This is going to be the engine that drives the Orioles this season, and that played out immediately. Rodrigo Lopez was in line for the loss, but he turned in a quality start, allowing two earned runs in six innings. Not bad considering he had never pitched in the snow.

Once Lopez left, five Orioles relievers combined to allow just three hits and one run over seven innings. The bullpen not only has some dominant pitchers - Buddy Groom and Jorge Julio - but there also seem to be no weak links, and that should help keep them in just about every game.

Infield defense: Shortstop Deivi Cruz made a run-saving play with a diving stop and throw in the 12th inning and fielded all six chances cleanly.

But the left side of the Orioles' infield, with Cruz and third baseman Tony Batista, has limited range. The Indians had two hits between those two fielders in the first three innings, and that will probably be a recurring theme this year.

Top of the order: Leadoff man Jerry Hairston took some big swings, making three outs in the air and doubling over the left fielder's head. Good things happened both times he hit the ball on the ground. He reached on an error by third baseman Casey Blake and made it to second base on an infield hit in the ninth, when Indians reliever Jose Santiago threw wildly to first.

Batting second, Gary Matthews scored the tying run in the 12th and had the game-winning hit an inning later. But he came up two times before that with no outs and Hairston on second base, failing to get Hairston over either time.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove let his coaching staff talk him out of starting Melvin Mora in left field instead of B.J. Surhoff. Had Hargrove gone with his initial plan, he would have had Mora, the team's best bunter, up in those two situations with Hairston on second. Instead, the Orioles came up empty both times as Surhoff (0-for-5 with a sacrifice bunt) followed Matthews with an out.

Mental toughness: The Orioles erased a three-run deficit and tied the score again in the 12th when they were down to their final strike. It was reminiscent of the first five months of 2002, when they were overachieving at about .500.

After scoring the second-fewest runs in the American League last season, this team knows it has to scratch and claw for everything it gets. Twice Monday, Orioles runners were thrown out on the bases for being too aggressive, but Hargrove has preached about the need to push the envelope.

"I will take aggressive mistakes," Hargrove said. "You don't like mistakes, but aggressive mistakes are easier to live with than the ones you make being passive. If you're aggressive with things, then you've got a chance to take a bad situation and turn it into something good."

After finishing 67-95 last year, the Orioles could use that as their new mantra.

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