ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — — Michael Gonzalez, the man who was signed this offseason to prevent gut-wrenching losses, sat in the corner of a stunned and silent Orioles clubhouse, his chin resting in his hands.
He had been waiting for this exact opportunity for weeks to prove that all the spring concerns about his diminished velocity and spotty command were wastes of energy, to show - as he promised - that he was a different pitcher once the bright lights of the regular season shone.
The spotlight was about as bright as it could get in the ninth inning Tuesday night at sold-out Tropicana Field, a one-run Orioles lead and a potentially satisfying start to the 2010 season resting firmly on Gonzalez's shoulders. He managed to get just one out as Carl Crawford lined a two-run, bases-loaded double that sent the Tampa Bay Rays pouring out of the dugout to celebrate a 4-3, Opening Night victory before an announced 36,973.
The ninth-inning implosion left Gonzalez slumped in his chair, looking up only to acknowledge the encouraging words of teammates Miguel Tejada and Brian Matusz and pitching coach Rick Kranitz.
"Seriously, I'm disgusted by the whole thing," said Gonzalez, who signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Orioles this offseason. "You see [Kevin] Millwood go out there and pitch a gem. The bullpen did awesome. ... Our offense did what they were doing all last year. They're going to get their runs, and I've got to come in and shut the door. I've got no excuses about that. I didn't get it done."
Admirably, Gonzalez shouldered the blame, but the reality was that it shouldn't have gotten to the point where the Orioles needed the reliever to get three outs under the constraints of a one-run lead.
The Orioles received solo homers from Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Luke Scott, but they went a woeful 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position and stranded 10 runners. They had men on first and third with no outs in the fourth and didn't score. They had runners on the corners with no outs in the ninth against erratic Rays closer Rafael Soriano and again couldn't push a run across with their top of the order at the plate.
Tejada lined Soriano's full-count pitch right at Crawford in left field to end the Orioles' final threat. Tejada, who went 0-for-5 but handled several opportunities flawlessly in his first game at third base, threw his hands up in the air in disgust.
"That was definitely what killed us, for sure," said Orioles leadoff man Brian Roberts, who also was 0-for-5. "We just left too many guys out there. We swung the bat well at times, and then at times when we needed to, we didn't."
It was about as painful as an early-season loss could be, especially because of what preceded the ninth inning. Making his seventh Opening Day start, Millwood gutted through five-plus innings, allowing two runs on nine hits. It wasn't a great performance by any means, but it at least dulled some of the concern over the veteran, who had a 12.96 ERA this spring.
"I was a little disappointed, yeah," said Millwood, who threw 100 pitches but was removed after giving up a tape-measure homer to Evan Longoria and singles to Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton. "I want to try to go deep in the games and try to give the bullpen a rest as much as possible. It just didn't work out tonight."
Matt Albers inherited Millwood's two-on-and-nobody-out mess in the sixth and induced a double play and a strikeout to keep the Orioles' lead at 3-2. He then teamed with left-handed specialist Will Ohman to turn in a scoreless seventh. Jim Johnson, who also had a poor spring, went through the heart of the Rays' order in the eighth.
Gonzalez started the ninth by striking out Pat Burrell, throwing one fastball during the at-bat that hit 93 mph. This spring, Gonzalez was consistently throwing in the mid- to high 80s, which led to some concern.
But Sean Rodriguez lined a one-out single and then pinch hitter Kelly Shoppach nearly won the game by ripping a belt-high fastball off the top of the wall in left field.
With runners on second and third and one out, the Orioles intentionally walked Jason Bartlett to set up a lefty-lefty matchup between Gonzalez and Crawford. The Rays' All-Star lined Gonzalez's second pitch, another fastball that was up, into right field. Nick Markakis' throw was late and wide as another Orioles season started with a brutal loss.
"You've got a one-run lead going into the ninth, what you have done earlier in the game is a wash," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said.
"It comes down to getting those three outs in the ninth. Whoever gets them first is going to walk away the winner. We didn't get them."