The setting seemed so promising Tuesday. A full house celebrating opening day at the Trop, an emotional tribute to Don Zimmer on the field, ace David Price on the mound and Evan Longoria at third, even a public chit-chat between principal owner Stuart Sternberg and St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.
Though not everything was perfect — too much gong-banging and scoreboard dog barking, Price not having his best stuff, the offense looking familiarly feeble — it still looked by late afternoon that things were going to end up going the Rays' way.
Price, despite admittedly not having Cy Young stuff, had battled to get through six innings. Longoria, and outfielder Sam Fuld, made a half-dozen highlight-worthy plays. The hitters found a way to do just enough to hand the bullpen a one-run lead in the seventh.
And then Jake McGee messed it all up.
A couple of misplaced pitches from the hard-throwing lefty, and the first day of a Rays season filled with great promise ended in disappointment, with a 7-4 loss to the Orioles.
"It's real tough," McGee said. "That was the turning point of everything pretty much."
The Rays had "rallied" to take a 3-2 lead — scoring two in the sixth on one hit (with a walk, bunt and sac fly) — when McGee, who was quietly one of the league's most dominant relievers last season, came in. A couple of ground ball singles with one out created trouble, then with two outs he made his own mess.
Missing not by 1 inch but by about 8, McGee left an 0-and-2 fastball, albeit 98 mph, that was supposed to be up and away right over the plate, and Adam Jones turned it into a two-run double. "Pretty much crosshairs," manager Joe Maddon said of the pitch.
After an intentional walk to Matt Wieters, McGee made his second mistake, a cutter that was more of a spinner, and Chris Davis launched that into a three-run homer. "I thought Jake could get to Davis there," Maddon said. "I did not envision a homer."
It was a most unexpected outcome, considering McGee was almost untouchable last season, allowing no more than three runs in any game, no homers in his last 27 outings and 11 hits to right-handed hitters all season, a .098 average that was lowest in nearly 40 years. He gave up two Tuesday.
"The way it was lining up, their hitters vs. our bullpen, I kind of liked the whole setup," Maddon said. "But they got us."
Ben Zobrist made a point to console McGee walking off. Pitching coach Jim Hickey spoke with him in the dugout. Executive vice president Andrew Friedman walked through the clubhouse and gave him a pat of encouragement.
"I've got to make a little better pitch," McGee said.
Sternberg said before the game that the grand expectations and predictions of a World Series berth made him "very uneasy," and the outcome was certainly a reminder of the challenges ahead.
There were some positive signs. Price, despite looking unsettled and his fastball, per Maddon, not "as spiffy" as usual, got them through six innings with the lead, though throwing 100 pitches. The new guys showed well. Longoria, limited last season after returning from a hamstring injury and cautious at times this spring, was dazzling in the field, diving and making throws from his knees and his backside.
The details — and his Will Ferrell movie character analogy — were a bit fuzzy. "Kind of that Ron Burgundy (possibly Frank the Tank in Old School) moment where you just kind of black out and you don't really know what happened," he said.
But what was clear Tuesday was that what looked to be a good day ended up bad.
"I thought we were going to win this game 3-2, and that's typical of us," Zobrist said. "We have to hold on to those kind of leads for us to win these tight games, especially against a team as good as the Orioles. … Certain guys have to shake it off a little bit today. But it's the first day of the season, so you don't think too hard about it."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]