They needed a sensational catch by right-fielder Nick Markakis to prevent Ben Zobrist from sending the game to extra-innings and got a huge start from Chris Tillman, who tossed six no-hit innings, confounding a team of seasoned vets. And they got a clutch three-run homer from lead-off man Brian Roberts that provided the first three runs of the game.
So are the Orioles the real thing? Is this what the fans and city have to look forward to in 2011?
Of course, it's too soon to tell, but as of right now this team is firing on all cylinders and looking very much the same as the squad that finished the year 34-23. Here's how they're doing it:
Lost in Tillman's gem was the gutty effort of the bullpen who shut down the heart of the Rays lineup down the stretch. Mike Gonzalez was spotty, but at least he didn't totally self-destruct like he did to start the 2010 season. Rather, at least Buck didn't let him self-destruct.
Last year the O's would have left Gonzo in to see if he could get the job done. Showalter, on the other hand, seems to realize that every single game can make a huge difference for this squad, and isn't willing to trust a guy without his best stuff to simply "figure it out" at the cost of a ballgame.
The pitching has been what has carried this team so far. Jeremy Guthrie's performance on Opening Night was epic and unexpected since he was facing off against David Price. Pitching with a renewed sense of confidence, Guthrie could be primed for a breakout year. And with an improved defense, he showed a willingness, much like Tillman did last night, to pitch to contact instead of trying to strike everyone out.
The O's starters have been so good, that as a group, they are one of only two duos to not allow an earned run as of yet, joining San Fran's Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Pretty good company eh?
As an entire unit, the O's have held the Rays to the worst average in the A.L., at .133.
Solid defensive play was a staple of Showalter's Orioles down the stretch last year. Ask any Oriole and they admitted to feeling like their job was on the line, and none of them wanted to disappoint Buck. That has certainly carried over to 2011.
Just check out Markakis' catch at the wall, robbing Zobrist and preserving a 2-0 start. Or Felix Pie's gunning down of B.J. Upton to preserve a 0-0 tie. Or even better, the job Matt Wieters did blocking the plate, preventing Upton from even touching home plate on the play. J.J. Hardy made a sensational play at short and Roberts was solid at second.
I know it's only two games, but the team has failed to commit an error, and stellar defensive plays have been a staple of the team's play so far.
Timely, Clutch Hitting
As a fan who's watched plenty of O's baseball over the past decade, there's one thing I can tell you. In previous years, when the O's were playing in a close game, it was almost a given that they would crack under the pressure and throw the game away.
Not Buck's boys.
Despite having the inkling that the team would once again cave, especially last night, the O's didn't falter, biding their time until they could get that clutch three-run HR from Roberts, which the bullpen preserved.
On Friday night it was more of the same. The O's held a 1-0 lead on possibly the best pitcher in the American League. All they could muster were singles and walks against David Price, until Roberts stepped to the plate in the fifth and crushed a pitch into a gap and ended up with a two-run triple, giving Guthrie some cushion.
Timely hitting is what that is, and it can make a winner out of any ball club, even one that's hitting .175 (third worst average in MLB) through two games as a team like the Orioles are.
You want further evidence that the O's have been sensational coming through in the clutch. Check out this stat. The team went three-up, three-down in six innings on Friday and five times on Saturday, meaning they've only collected a hit or a walk in eight of 19 innings.
Success with runners in scoring position
One of the biggest factors in the O's success under Showalter last year was their improvement in hitting with runners in scoring position. The O's were the worst team in baseball hitting with RISP, and under Showalter, they improved to one of the best over those final two-and-a-half months.
They're back at it again in 2011, and despite their paltry .175 combined average as a team, they're hitting .429 with RISP.
Now, who knows how long the O's will be able to keep this up. The run could end today, with rookie Zach Britton making his major league debut. The O's have had a terrible track record of rookies making any kind of immediate impact, but with Britton, the O's have a pitcher similar to Brad Bergesen who had tremendous success as a rookie thanks to his ground-ball pitching ways. Britton has a similar repertoire, but throws about five to six mph harder, making him a much more impressive prospect.
For the time being, however, I'm going to enjoy sharing first place in the A.L. East.
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