Rocky start for Red Sox

This is the year Red Sox finally put an end to the curse. Sunday's opener, however, showed it won't be easy.

Originally Published: April 4, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- If this really is The Year for the Red Sox, it wouldn't be fitting if it didn't begin with the kind of game that offered the residents of New England a chance to experience that one powerful bonding experience that unites Red Sox fans everywhere.

And by that, we mean, of course: Full-scale, unmitigated panic in the streets.

Pokey Reese attempts to turn a double play over Javy Lopez.

Well, let the hysteria begin. That opening-night scoreboard Sunday read: Baltimore 7, Boston 2. And Pedro Martinez once again had more people watching the radar board than the playing field. That vaunted Sox offense left about 12,000 runners on base (OK, actually 14.) And two Sox errors led to two unearned runs.

So there. That should be plenty to panic over.

"Yeah," laughed Orioles DH David Segui, "I'm sure somebody over there has their head on the chopping block right about now."

Meanwhile, if this really is the year the Orioles get themselves back on the AL East radar screen, then this was the way they needed to get things rolling:

By beating a pitcher who started the night with a 1.05 career ERA in Camden Yards (i.e., Pedro). And by actually looking as if they might get their money's worth out of that $121.5 million they committed to Javy Lopez, Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Sidney Ponson over the winter.

"It's exciting to beat a good team," said Tejada, after he, Lopez and Palmeiro had combined for seven hits and four RBI, and Ponson had beaten a franchise he'd been 1-9 lifetime against. "When you beat a good team, you show people you can beat anybody."

Exactly. ... Well, you show people you can beat them once, anyhow.

"I think we always knew," Segui deadpanned, confidently, "that we were going to win one game this year."

No doubt. But after all that, the question for both these teams is: Now what? And that's the type of question opening day never seems to be real good at answering.

What, for instance, did Sunday night tell us about Pedro?

He sure wasn't the Pedro of old. He was 29 pitches into his evening before he had any pitch clocked at 90 miles per hour (and he never topped 91). Of the first nine hitters he faced, seven reached base. And he had no curveball whatsoever, for reasons that could be chalked up to either A) frostbite, B) his suspicious new sidewheeling delivery or C) both of the above.

We can't report what Martinez's take was on his evening, because he headed back to the hotel during the eighth inning. But we can report there's no truth to the rumor that Earl Weaver (one of six Orioles legends to toss out the first ball) was throwing harder than him. In one stretch, Martinez hit 90 or 91 mph seven times in 18 pitches.

"I don't want to talk about Pedro's velocity," said manager Terry Francona, sternly. "I do want to talk about him competing."

And you couldn't blame him, because, as shaky as Martinez might have started out, he was still a whole lot better than, say, John ('Way Back') Wasdin. After that first rocky trip through the order, Martinez faced 17 hitters and just three reached base -- on two infield hits and a walk.

"He had a tough second inning," Francona said. "Other than that, he was very, very good."

True. By everyone-else-type standards. But by Pedro standards, he was downright ordinary.

And it was impossible to tell, off this game, whether that second gear he clicked into was a sign he'd rediscovered his usual brilliant self -- or just a sign he'd finally gotten loose on a night featuring weather more suitable for the Iditarod than The Summer Game.

"To me," said Tejada, "he's still a nasty pitcher. I can't explain that second inning (when he gave up all three runs he allowed). But you see what happened after he got in trouble. For him, that might be his wakeup call."

Or maybe not. But that's for the next six months to answer.

And while we await that answer, we should also ask whether this night might serve as a wakeup call for Pedro's team. These Red Sox had waited five long months, after Aaron Boone's homer, to play a game that mattered again. But this wasn't quite what they had in mind.

Before the Orioles broke the game open with three seventh-inning runs against the Boston bullpen, the Red Sox brought the tying or winning run to the plate 13 times between the third and seventh innings -- and never got one run-scoring hit.

"We played bad," said Johnny Damon, who went 0-for-5 and stranded six runners. "And we're not going to be that bad. We've just got to get adjusted to that cold weather -- for the next couple of months."

Yeah, you'd think a team that plays in New England would realize it doesn't just need to practice cutoffs and relays in spring training. It needs to practice hypothermia.

After spending the last month and a half broiling under an 80-degree Florida sun, the Red Sox arrived in Baltimore on Sunday to find temperatures that started out at 43 degrees, with 20-degree wind chills -- and got worse from there. The game-time temperature was 20 degrees colder than it was for the last Ravens game -- on Jan. 3.

"Maybe we need to open the season in the south -- and then stay south," Damon said. "Puerto Rico is looking very good right now."

Just to make sure the Red Sox felt about as warm as the Ice Capades, the Orioles marched them out onto the infield for pregame introductions -- then made them all stand around for nearly 20 minutes as they unfurled a long orange carpet, shot off fireworks and introduced everyone from Tejada to their new head groundskeeper.

"That definitely took away some of our intensity at the start," Damon said. "But we were ready to play."

And we should note that weather wasn't a real acceptable excuse, anyway. The Orioles, after all, didn't spend spring training in Fairbanks, Alaska, either. And they managed to play actual baseball for all three hours they were out there.

Javy Lopez, for example, was officially cold. He admitted to that. It was his first opening day in Baltimore after 10 opening days with the Braves. And he wasn't afraid to report: "It never gets this cold in Atlanta." But it didn't stop him from homering off Martinez -- on the first pitch he saw as an Oriole.

That picturesque swing made him the first Oriole to hit a home run in his first at-bat since Sam Horn did it 14 years ago, incidentally. And believe it or not, it meant he now owns more opening-day homers as an Oriole (one) than he hit as a Brave (zero).

"I'm not surprised," Lopez said, when informed of that news. "I don't remember doing that well on opening day before today."

But when he scrunched that 88-mph Martinez fastball around the foul pole, he found it "hard to explain that feeling," he said. And that homer unleashed something in his teammates, too -- a game-turning stretch in which five straight Orioles reached base against Martinez (one of them on a throwing error by Pedro himself).

"I think the best thing that happened to our team against Pedro," Tejada said, "was scoring first."

We can't tell you how often the Orioles will score first over the next 161 games. But scoring in general won't be their problem. Adding Lopez (three years, $22.5 million), Tejada (six years, $72 million) and Palmeiro (one year, $4.5 million) wasn't cheap. But it changed the face of a lineup that was 10th in the league in runs scored last year.

The proof: Outfielders Luis Matos and Larry Bigbie spent a lot of last season batting second and third, respectively. On opening night, they hit ninth and eighth.

"In the past," Segui said, "we had a lineup, but there was no flow to our lineup. Now we've got a flow. Now we have guys in their more natural spots. The way it's set up now, it's hard for people to pitch around anybody in our lineup. And it's nice to blend the young guys in with guys who have established themselves -- instead of sending out young kids out there and saying, 'Go get 'em.'"

But the Orioles aren't ready for prime time yet, either. In Game 2, the Red Sox get to pitch Curt Schilling, who has averaged 16 wins a year over the last seven seasons. On the other hand, the Orioles' four starters besides Ponson have won 10 games total -- in their careers.

So while opening day may tell us something about these two teams, we have to remember what it is and what it isn't. It's the trailer. It isn't the entire motion picture.

Over those 161 games to come, the Orioles' fate will be decided by those four young starters -- Eric DuBose, Matt Riley, Kurt Ainsworth and Eric Bedard. And the Red Sox will have many, many better days ahead. But what might determine their fate is which Pedro Martinez shows up to make his next 34 starts.

And just the fact that we find ourselves wondering about Pedro puts everything in appropriate opening-day perspective -- because in New England, it's easy to forget how many teams would love to be worrying about the Red Sox's No. 1 "problem."

"It seems like a lot of people are looking to write Pedro off," Segui said. "All I know is, if they don't want him, we'll be glad to take him."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com