(Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
It was special because it was Opening Day, but the Orioles' tense victory over the defending world champion Red Sox did not represent a dramatic departure from the way these two AL East rivals have been mixing it up since the end of the 2011 season.
The Orioles played tight defense and emerged on top because of a dramatic seventh-inning home run off Boston ace Jon Lester. The Red Sox contested every pitch and made O's starter Chris Tillman use everything up in the first five innings.
So, what else is new?
"That's the way it pretty much goes all the time with these guys," Tillman said. "They battle all the way through and I think we do the same. I think that's going to be the way it is. It's to be expected. These guys go out and foul pitches off — that's the gameplan — so I think coming out on top is big."
Tillman threw 104 pitches and had to work out of trouble several times, which would make you wonder if anything has changed for the Orioles since last year. The issue that many thought was their undoing in the September playoff chase was the inability of their starters to go deep enough into games to preserve the bullpen.
On the face of it, that would appear to be what happened Monday, since manager Buck Showalter was forced to use four relievers to finish the game, but he said afterward that Tillman was in control and simply fell victim to a Red Sox lineup that is known for it's ability to squeeze opposing pitchers out of a game early.
"It wasn't a command issue," Showalter said. "It was more the Red Sox. I haven't counted the foul balls, but that's what they do. You've just got to keep grinding, keep matching, and not give in on the at-bat."
Tillman did that. He gave up seven hits and had runners on base in every inning, but allowed just a bases-empty home run to center fielder Grady Sizemore in the fourth. The Orioles had taken the lead in the second on a run-scoring double-play ball that scored newcomer Nelson Cruz and took it again when Cruz delighted the sellout crowd with his first Orioles home run in the seventh.
"I ran the pitch count a little bit,'' Tillman said. "It was a battle all the way through. It wasn't just one inning. They put together five tough innings. That happens sometimes."
It's not surprising that Tillman was harder on himself after the game for his inability to close out at-bats than anyone who took the field with him. Showalter has talked all spring about the way he has matured into the accountable pitcher who won 16 games last year and earned the Opening Day assignment.
Catcher Matt Wieters said Monday's performance was both typical Tillman and typical Red Sox.
"You kind of know you're going to get that when you face Boston,'' Wieters said. "They're going to battle. They're going to foul off pitches. They're going to take you deep in the count. There aren't many first-pitch swingers over there, so you're going to get deep in the count, but all you can do is go out there and keep making pitchers and he did that. He didn't let it frustrate him that he probably wasn't going to go deep in that game and he still gave us a chance to win."
That victory built on the Orioles' strong performance against the Red Sox over the past two-plus years as well as their dramatic turnaround against Lester, who once owned a 14-0 career record against them. Including the "Curse of the Andino" game on the last night of the 2011 season, the Orioles have won eight of the last nine games that Lester has started against them and are 25-13 against the Red Sox overall.
It was only one game, of course, but it was the long-awaited regular season opener and Tillman stood his ground against the reigning world champions. So did Zach Britton, Evan Meek, Brian Matusz and new closer Tommy Hunter.
Doesn't get much better than that.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Friday mornings at 9 on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.