ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — None of it would have mattered, not Chris Tillman's six scoreless and hitless innings, not Brian Roberts' tie-breaking, three-run homer, not Felix Pie's perfect throw to nail a runner at the plate and certainly not Koji Uehara's damage control.
Ben Zobrist had a chance to make all those things an afterthought, not to mention ruin Kevin Gregg's first save opportunity as an Oriole. However, Nick Markakis simply wouldn't let him.
One of the game's best defensive players never to win a Gold Glove, Markakis made a leaping catch at the wall on Zobrist's ninth-inning bid to either tie or win the game, ending the Orioles' 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in front of an announced 22,164 at Tropicana Field.
"I knew I had to go for it. It was one of those do-or-die plays. You either catch it or you end up with a tie game," Markakis said. "It worked out good for us in the end."
Did it ever. Zobrist's drive wouldn't have gone over the wall for a game-ending homer, but at the very least, it would have likely tied a game that the Orioles led by three in the eighth inning, thanks to Roberts' blast on Jake McGee's third pitch after relieving a dominant James Shields.
Instead, Markakis caught it while slamming into the right-field wall, preserving a series victory to start the 2011 season. The Orioles will go for the three-game sweep this afternoon in the major league debut of top pitching prospect Zach Britton, who will have a tough act to follow. The Orioles' two starters in the series -- Jeremy Guthrie and Tillman -- have allowed only three hits and four walks in 14 innings.
The Orioles didn't win their second game of the season last year until April 18, their 13th game of the season. They didn't take their first series of 2010 until they swept the Boston Red Sox in the eighth series of the season.
"We're all out here to win," Tillman said. "I think [manager Buck Showalter] kind of put that confidence in us. We watched that [highlight] video again the other day and we were just as pumped up. There's no secret behind it. We're all here to win every day."
If they continue to get starting pitching like they've gotten over the first two nights, that shouldn't be a problem. Tillman, who made the rotation despite an uneven spring, 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. When he struck out Sean Rodriguez, a substitute for star third baseman Evan Longoria who could be headed to the disabled list with an oblique injury, to end the sixth, his pitch count was at 101 and he had issued four walks. Showalter acknowledged that he thought about keeping him in the game, but opted to bring in Jeremy Accardo.
"That's right where he [Tillman] needs to be. It's a marathon and we're also trying to develop pitchers," Showalter said. "These young pitchers are precious commodities for us and that's just part of it. This is what we're trying to do and we're going to protect them. But if he continues to pitch like that, there will be plenty of opportunities. But what are they going to end up, throwing 170, 180? Now if he gets through the seventh inning, we've got it set up pretty good for us."
B.J. Upton broke up the no-hit bid with a sharp single with two outs in the seventh. He stole second and then was in position to score on Kelly Shoppach's two-out single into left. However, Pie, who entered the game in the top of the inning when Luke Scott strained his right groin beating out a double play, made a perfect throw and catcher Matt Wieters blocked Upton off the plate to keep the game scoreless.
It didn't stay that way for long. Shields was removed by Rays manager Joe Maddon with one out in the eighth following a leadoff single to Mark Reynolds and a one-out walk to J.J. Hardy. McGee, a lefty, entered and watched Roberts hit his third pitch into the left-field seats for a three-run homer.
"I was fortunate, I guess, to have the chance to face him [Friday] night," Roberts said. "I only saw one pitch, but I at least had an idea and definitely you're just looking for something to hit. I was just trying to put the barrel on it and try to score one and somehow I found the barrel and scored three."
Lefty Michael Gonzalez was given the first opportunity to preserve the Orioles' three-run lead and he walked the first two batters he faced before retiring Johnny Damon. Uehara then entered, striking out pinch hitter Sam Fuld, allowing an RBI single to Manny Ramirez, and then retiring Dan Johnson on a groundout to end the threat.
Presented with a two-run lead in the ninth, Gregg surrendered a leadoff single to Upton. He settled for one out on Matt Joyce's groundball, but replays showed that first base umpire Laz Diaz missed the call at first base on what should have been a double play. A walk of Shoppach was followed by a strikeout of Elliot Johnson. Then, Zobrist came up and had a chance to ruin the Orioles' evening. Markakis just wouldn't let him.
"I have said over and over again, it's a crime that he hasn't won a Gold Glove by this point," Roberts said. "To me, he is the best right fielder in the game. I have watched it for six years. If you didn't believe me before now, I hope you do now."