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8 Upper

Opening Shot

By Tom Scocca | Posted 4/4/2001

ORIOLE PARK, APRIL 2--Jerry Hairston Jr., is dancing off second base. If you are hoping for anything from the Orioles this year, it begins right here: Bottom of the sixth on Opening Day, the O's down 1-0 to Pedro Martinez and the Boston Red Sox. The last time Martinez pitched here, he threw a suffocating two-hitter, striking out 15. But the Greatest Pitcher in Baseball has already given up three hits today--a cheap one to David Segui and a pair of solid ones by Hairston: a crisp single to right and just now a double up the left-field line. A double!

Between pitches, the Sox ace looks over his shoulder at the young Oriole. And looks some more. Hairston is several strides away from the bag, bouncing on his toes, swinging his arms. He is now 4-for-5 lifetime off the Greatest Pitcher in Baseball. Martinez--who has already, despite his pinpoint skills, clipped Melvin Mora in the helmet this afternoon--lets his gaze linger. He has fallen behind in the count, 3-1, to Brady Anderson. He corrects that with a high strike, taking advantage of the expanded 2001 strike zone. Anderson fouls the next pitch off.

And then, as Martinez tries again, Hairston breaks for third. Anderson swings and misses, strike three, but Hairston gets the steal. With the runner on third, the infielders move in--and Mike Bordick bloops a pop-up into shallow right field, just over the drawn-in second baseman. Hairston sprints home with the tying run.

In the glow of the hot stove, baseball experts from old-fashioned anecdote peddlers to serial-processing sabermetricians have all reached the same conclusions about the American League East: The Red Sox, having added free-agent Manny Ramirez's league-leading slugging to Martinez's league-leading pitching, will win 90 or more games and challenge the Yankees for first place. The Orioles, having added nothing league-leading at all, will lose 90 or more games and challenge the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for last place.

The Orioles' marketing division disagrees. Its official spin on this season is that the 2001 O's are young and eager, ready to recapture the excitement of the great jury-rigged pennant chase of 1989. It would be nice to think so. Comparing this year's Opening Day batting order with last year's, I can convince myself that the Orioles upgraded at five positions: second base (from Delino DeShields to Hairston), left field (B.J. Surhoff to DeShields), first base (the odious Will Clark to David Segui), center field (Mora can hardly be worse out there than Anderson was last year), and, knock wood, third base, with 40-year-old Cal Ripken Jr., two years removed from back surgery, perhaps healthier than he was last season.

But then I remember that the O's opened last season with Mike Mussina on the mound and wonder why I'm even bothering to look at the lineups. The new-blood O's were an underrated team in the second half of 2000, going 31-31 after the great roster purge. They covered more ground on defense, ran the bases more aggressively, hustled their way into something resembling adequacy.

After O's owner Peter Angelos let Mussina go to the Yankees, however, it was hard to believe they'd still be adequate, let alone work their way into a 1989-style run at the pennant. why not again? asked the JumboTron before the game, taking the slogan from yesteryear. Um, because Pat fucking Hentgen is the ace, that's why not.

This is how you think after three straight losing seasons, with your best pitcher wearing pinstripes and your best hitter, Albert Belle, crippled into early retirement. You get surly and morose. The veterans look washed up. The fresh talent looks unready and unproven. People shake their heads and question Hairston's hitting ability.

Yet here is the actual game, the first of the season, and Hentgen is matching Martinez pitch for pitch. The ferocious Red Sox are fielding a team that includes Craig Grebeck, Chris Stynes, and Shea Hillebrand. Why shouldn't Hairston, Mora, and Chris Richard be playing them dead even?

The game moves into the seventh. With one out, Ramirez smashes the ball to deep right field. But the O's moved home plate backward in the offseason, adding more room in the outfield. Carl Everett hit one to the warning track in the second inning; now Ramirez's shot bounces off the wall. Nursing a sore leg, he pulls up with a single.

Martinez leaves after seven innings--four hits, six strikeouts--but Hentgen keeps going. He lasts till the ninth, when the Sox scrape together a mini-rally, putting runners on first and third with two outs. Buddy Groom comes on, and Everett rips the ball to the left side of the infield, where Ripken pounces and smothers it, his third spectacular defensive play of the day. It's still 1-1.

Groom keeps it that way through the 10th, and then Ryan Kohlmeier takes over. The tenderfoot closer gets two outs, then puts two men on. He gets ahead of Darren Lewis 0-2, then misses outside on a barely--barely--checked swing. The 1-2 pitch is a fastball, up around Lewis' eyes. He flails and misses.

Which brings up Hairston again, in the bottom of the 11th. At 6 p.m. exactly, he stands in and takes strike one. The next pitch, he lifts into shallow left field. Troy O'Leary sprints in, reaches out--and the ball short-hops him. Hairston races to second base with another double. Anderson follows with a single through the right side; Hairston never pauses, rounding third and crossing the plate at 6:02. Age drives in youth. And just like that, the 2001 Orioles are ahead of last year's pace.

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