Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What We Learned from Opening Day

It is very easy to make too much out of Opening Day and view it under a microscope. After all, you don’t judge a marathon on how a runner takes his first steps. However, yesterday afternoon’s 10-5 smash over many analyst’s pick to win the AL East (and perennial heart of evil in baseball) can give Orioles fans a host of reasons for jubilation, and a few reasons for concern moving forward. If nothing else, every win is one step closer to an improvement on last season. No matter what happens this season (100 losses is not out of the question), there will be plenty of story lines to follow.

Well, if yesterday’s game was any indication, the defense is for real. Aside from a ball falling out of Nick Markakis’ glove in foul territory late in the game, the fielding was exemplary. While the waterlogged infield may have helped slow the ball down slightly, Cesar Izturis played up to and beyond expectations in keeping balls from getting to the outfield and hustling to complete double plays. Brian Roberts should be able to play to his side and not worry about covering for a shortstop with limited range. Additionally, it seems as though Melvin Mora is putting off the defensive decline that comes with age for another year. His incredible grab to rob a base hit on a line drive showed that his reflexes are as good as ever- every year I am convinced that he will start to break down and every year he seems to prove me wrong at third. He isn’t the best defensive third baseman in the game, but he still does a solid job.

On the other hand, the bullpen might not be as strong as we thought. Chris Ray, coming off of a year-long absence from the game and a 0.00 ERA in spring training, served up a two run shot to Jorge Posada and Ray simply did not look like his old self. Let’s hope this was just due to jitters and not a greater problem with his health. He may need some time to readjust to the big leagues, but this pitching staff might not have much time to let him tinker away. Jamie Walker does not appear to have rebounded very well from last season (which he insisted was due to injury, but this writer is starting to doubt that), with the left-handed specialist struggling and failing to get out his one batter. Overall the Orioles had to burn through 6 relievers in 3 innings of work, with only Dennis Sarfate not allowing a man to get on base. Jim Johnson’s command was off, throwing way off the plate and showing obvious signs of frustration. He is going to have to get under control, as the 7-8-9 line of Ray, Johnson, and Sherrill will be critical for the starters to have a bit of rest now and then. Yesterday it didn’t happen, but Johnson’s wild pitching could have made things a lot worse for Baltimore.

As expected, these boys can hit. Every player except Luke Scott got at least one hit, but the biggest surprise has got to be Adam Jones’ patience at the plate. Jones consistently made pitchers throw him a good pitch before he’d swing, and it led to his 2 walks and 3 hits, with not a single at-bat wasted. Generally hitters who are impatient tend to stay that way; they can get slightly better or slightly worse but a high strike-out rate usually stays with a guy through his career. We had heard rumblings of Jones improving in that department, but I didn’t expect what I saw yesterday. It bodes very well for a 1-2 high on-base-percentage punch in Roberts and Jones at the top of the order. As I said earlier, Cesar Izturis came to play yesterday. His home run might or might not have come due to fan interference, but until I hear Yankee fans bemoaning the illegitimate “Jeffrey Maier” home run of 1996, I will take it with a shrug when playing New York. It was close enough not to overturn anything, anyway. Any time you score 10 runs it is a great output, and please let’s not pull the ESPN routine and blame the Oriole’s offense on CC’s bad day. As Manager Dave Trembley said in his postgame press conference, his players simply worked the count and forced CC to give them the pitch they wanted. No, the $161 million man didn’t have a great outing, but the O’s were not just cherry picking out there.

This was a great way to open the season, but there are still plenty of concerns. Luckily O’s fans have until Wednesday to bask in the glory of an Opening Day win. Enjoy it- there may be a rough season ahead, but yesterday’s performance was certainly uplifting. Let’s see how Koji Uehara fares in his MLB debut against this same vaunted Yankee lineup.

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