My first impression: I've seen this movie

April 03, 2007|By RICK MAESE

Minneapolis — Minneapolis-- --Suggesting that Opening Day magic hung thick in the dome's ventilated air would be a lie.

Minnesota ushered in the 2007 baseball season with a game-time temperature that was 20 degrees lower in the parking lot than inside the Metrodome. The artificial turf was freshly vacuumed and players' spring training tans hadn't yet started to fade.

But the missing magic was especially noticeable right where the Orioles needed it most: hovering around Erik Bedard's left arm.

"I threw some good pitches and I threw some bad pitches. They hit both," he said after the Orioles' 7-4 loss to the Twins last night.

Game No. 1 of 162 was between two small-market teams - one featuring the American League's reigning Cy Young winner, its Most Valuable Player and its batting champ. And the other (hint: the Orioles) featuring a list of injured body parts that included a starting pitcher's shoulder, an outfielder's hamstring and - this just in! - a catcher's strained oblique.

Despite the tempered mystique at the Metrodome, at least that little revelation made it feel like Orioles baseball had officially begun. Were you really surprised to learn that catcher Ramon Hernandez would miss a few starts? It's the Orioles, and if you're expecting things to go according to plan, well, you probably haven't been paying much attention lately.

And sure enough, following a pretty predictable script, the Twins broke a 3-3 tie in the fifth inning when Luis Castillo scored off a passed ball that Orioles backup catcher Paul Bako failed to handle.

No, that's not too surprising with this team. But when the staff ace gets lit up like a Las Vegas casino sign, you can't help but worry a tiny bit. That's the part you didn't anticipate and that's what will sting until Bedard takes the mound again.

On the second pitch of the second inning, Minnesota's Justin Morneau sent a 404-foot shot into the right-center-field seats. Torii Hunter blasted the next pitch over the right-field wall. From there, it all started to resemble that late-night movie that seems to be playing whenever you're having trouble sleeping. That's when you try counting sheep - or in this case, Twins base runners: 13 ... 14 ... 15 ...

"[Bedard] was throwing pretty good, I think, until the fifth inning," manager Sam Perlozzo said. "He started just overthrowing a little bit, trying to be too fine or put too much on it and just lost his command a little bit."

One of the beauties of baseball - from the first pitch on Opening Day until the final out of the World Series - is that every swing of the bat and each stride toward the plate is judged against an intricately detailed backdrop. The game's story is richer and longer than the histories of entire nations. And everything that's done on the diamond is preserved forever - recorded on a tattered scorecard, saved on Web pages and etched in the memory of any youngster root-root-rooting for the home team for the very first time.

I'm telling you this because for the Orioles, it might feel better to view this season opener in the context of the past, not the future. Spring is a time for new beginnings and it's only natural if you're already beginning to worry a little.

Of course, Bedard isn't the sole source (and in fact, I'd be surprised if last night's outing is repeated too often). Baseball's schedule makers dealt the Orioles quite a hand - the Twins, the New York Yankees and then the Detroit Tigers right out of the gate. They're going to lose some games. No doubt. But they can't afford to lose faith, too.

Last night, we showed up for an Opening Day pitching duel and instead witnessed nine innings of batting practice. Bedard's final line - six runs, 10 hits in just 4 2/3 innings - doesn't lessen the lofty expectations placed on him; rather it underscores how much hinges on his turn in the rotation. And it certainly reminds us that if the staff's only sure thing struggles, this could be a long season.

There are changes across baseball this year. There are advertisements in the ivy at Wrigley Field. The all-time home run crown might soon need to be enlarged to fit a new head - a much larger head. And NASA supercomputers are required to tabulate player salaries.

Still, despite this Opening Day loss - the Orioles' first since 2000 - there's plenty of purity worth clinging to.

When you strip away the magic and poetry from Opening Day, it's just another fraction. Just one of 162. And though there are a couple of tough weeks ahead for the Orioles, they'll return to the ballpark again today. One down, 161 to go. Plenty of room for improvement.

Perlozzo said of Bedard: "He'll probably learn something from [the loss] and be even better."

The Orioles had better hope so. It can get awfully dark when one of your few bright spots starts flickering. And in the season's opening month, the Orioles are in dire need of a light source.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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