ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — — For one night, the concerns about young starter Chris Tillman proved unfounded. He not only kept the Orioles in the game, he didn't allow a hit or a run over six tedious yet effective innings Saturday.
The Orioles' offense, however, was shut down until one big swing from an unlikely power source.
In a scoreless game in the eighth inning, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon removed a dominant James Shields and replaced him with left-hander Jake McGee. Brian Roberts sent his third pitch deep into the left-field seats. The three-run shot, coupled with Nick Markakis' game-saving and game-ending catch, gave the Orioles a 3-1 victory over the Rays in front of an announced 22,164 at Tropicana Field.
With two men on and two out in the ninth inning, Ben Zobrist sent Kevin Gregg's first pitch deep to right field. Markakis measured it perfectly and leaped against the wall to make the catch. The ball probably wasn't going out, but it least would have been an extra-base hit and likely tied the game.
Instead, the Orioles will go for the three-game season-opening sweep Sunday. They didn't win their second game last season until April 18th in their 13th game of the season.
In the series, the two Oriole starters — Jeremy Guthrie on Opening Day and Tillman — have allowed no runs and just three hits in 14 innings. Top prospect Zach Britton has quite an act to follow in Sunday's series finale.
Tillman ended his outing with a strikeout of Sean Rodriguez with a runner on. His pitch count was at 101 and he had walked four when manager Buck Showalter lifted him from the game and brought in Jeremy Accardo, putting the shutout and the no-hitter in his hands.
Accardo retired the first two batters in the seventh before B.J. Upton lined a single into center field to break up the no-hit bid. With Matt Joyce at the plate, the Orioles guessed correctly and pitched out with Upton running. However, catcher Matt Wieters couldn't get the ball out of his mitt and Upton easily beat his throw.
Showalter opted to intentionally walk Joyce and set up a righty-right matchup against Kelly Shoppach. The Rays catcher foiled it by lining a single in front of left fielder Felix Pie. Brought on as a pinch-runner for Luke Scott in the top of the inning, Pie fielded the one-hopper and made a perfect throw to home that just beat the speedy Upton, who was also blocked off the plate by Wieters.
Tillman made the team out of spring training, marking the first time the 22-year-old cracked an Opening Day roster. He pitched well at times this spring, compiling a 2-0 record and a 3.93 ERA in five outings. But he was dogged this spring by some of the same problems that he's experienced over the past two seasons in which he's pitched to a 5.61 ERA in 23 big league starts.
The young right-hander allowed 31 baserunners in 18 1/3 Grapefruit League innings, and had Brad Bergesen been healthier or pitched a little better in the spring, Tillman may have been preparing for the minor-league season rather than on the mound in game two of the season.
He was a little shaky early, going to three-ball counts with each of the first three hitters that he faced and six of the first nine. But he kept producing outs, getting around two-out walks in each of the first two innings, first by retiring Manny Ramirez on a lineout to Markakis and then on a strikeout of Shoppach to end the second.
Shields has given the Orioles some problems in the past, going 7-4 with a 3.63 ERA in 19 career starts against them. However, his struggles last year against the Orioles mirrored the type of season that he endured. Shields went 1-2 with a 7.06 ERA and surrendered five homers in four starts against them.
For the 2010 season, he lost a career-high 15 games, tied for second most in the American League, and his ERA was a career-high 5.18. He became just one of five pitchers all time to lose 15 games with an ERA above 5.00 for a team that went to the playoffs.
He allowed 34 home runs, the most in the league A.L. and the second most in baseball. Healso led the majors by allowing 127 runs, 117 earned runs and 246 hits, all career highs.
But the veteran has made some adjustments to his delivery and he was in fine form after escaping a jam in the first inning. Roberts led off the game with a single to right and Markakis drew a walk. Shields struck out Derrek Lee for the first out, and then did the same to Vladimir Guerrero for the second. Scott worked the count full before flying out to deep center.
That started a stretch where Shields retired nine straight Orioles, five of them via the strikeout. Lee broke that streak with a sharp single to left field to lead off the fourth, giving the veteran first baseman his first hit as an Oriole. However, he was quickly erased when Guerrero bounced into a double play. Shields fanned Scott to end the inning.