From the earliest days of spring training, we fretted about Brian Roberts and wondered about new closer Michael Gonzalez, but the Orioles told us everything was going to be OK.
Roberts was sidelined for most of the exhibition season after suffering a herniated disk in his lower back. Gonzalez was simply a mystery, pitching on an uneven schedule and raising eyebrows with his inconsistent velocity and unconventional mechanics.
We fretted because Roberts means everything to the Orioles and Gonzalez was going to assume the most important role in the bullpen at a point in the Orioles' rebuilding process when every win would be precious. We fretted so much that manager Dave Trembley and Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail grew tired and impatient with the questions and the speculation.
So, on a brisk and bright first afternoon of the baseball season in Baltimore, the deepest, darkest fears of the Orioles' faithful bubbled up again in the course of another discouraging come-from-ahead defeat.
Roberts started the game, stole a base and scored the Orioles' first run, but did not return from the dugout when the Orioles took the field in the second inning. The club reported that he had suffered a strained abdominal muscle but had no other information to offer, and Roberts was nowhere to be found after the game.
Gonzalez tried to finish the game and blew his second save in three opportunities. His command was erratic, and he didn't even get all the way through the ninth inning. His rocky performance at Tropicana Field obviously preceded him, because the sellout crowd began to boo him unmercifully as soon as he walked the first batter he faced.
Trembley didn't even try to sugarcoat it.
"Bottom line, this is a game you've got to win," he said. "You've got to win it, and you don't do it."
Gonzalez didn't make any excuses.
"This is definitely not the way I wanted to start off," he said, "but I have the utmost confidence that I can get the job done."
The Orioles have little choice but to share that confidence because they are a little short on alternatives at the moment. MacPhail paid $12 million to put Gonzalez in the closer's role for two seasons, so he's going to be the closer until he gets it right or the situation becomes so unbearable that it probably won't make a lot of difference anyway.
It's fair to wonder why the Orioles didn't see this coming. Gonzalez never seemed to settle into the spring bullpen rotation but insisted throughout training camp that his arm was fine. He did acknowledge a minor back issue, but that really didn't explain why his fastball lacked its normal zip and left visiting scouts convinced he was pitching hurt.
Trembley rested on the same rationale that allowed Kevin Millwood to spend much of the spring pitching against minor league competition. You have to trust your veterans, he said whenever the subject came up. But Millwood was ready to pitch on Opening Night at the Trop. Gonzalez apparently was not.
The Roberts situation was less complicated, though more important. He worked hard all spring to get ready for the season and showed up on Opening Night ready to play. He might have been a little rusty after just a handful of exhibition appearances, but he looked comfortable and played hard in every game.
There is no indication that the injury he suffered on the bases Friday is connected to the disk problem in his lower back, but the possibility is going to hang out there until there is a firm indication to the contrary. Even if it isn't, abdominal strains are pesky things, so it's still possible that Roberts could end up on the disabled list.
Credit MacPhail for planning for that eventuality when he acquired Julio Lugo from the St. Louis Cardinals last week, but Lugo is not one of the top leadoff men in baseball and no one seriously expects him to replace what Roberts adds to the offensive chemistry of this team. There is no Plan B for the closer role.
It might be very early, but the Orioles are in a serious bind. If Roberts doesn't return soon and Gonzalez doesn't rebound almost immediately, this season has a chance to get very ugly very fast.
"I need to turn things around," Gonzalez said. "I need to do it quick."
No mystery about that.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM), and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.