ST. PETERSBURG — Given how Thursday's game could have turned out, with starter Jeff Niemann knocked out in the second by a line drive off his right shoulder, manager Joe Maddon found some satisfaction in the way the Rays kept it close until the final pitch of the 5-4 loss to the Orioles, their first of the season after two wins.
"I'm so happy with the way we're playing," Maddon said. "It's just a battle. We're involved. We're focused. We're playing hard. What else can you ask for?"
A 2-1 start with three one-run games isn't bad. But there was also some disappointment in the clubhouse over the chance, a very good one as they left the bases loaded in the ninth, to do more with the opportunity to match the team-record 3-0 start by the 2002 team. (Then again, that Hal McRae squad won only 52 more games, and lost 106.)
There were some reasons for concern, too, amplified by the world champion and arch-rival Yankees invading Tropicana Field starting tonight that in some ways— no disrespect to the Orioles — will serve as the Rays' real season opener.
First is Niemann, who was stiff and "pretty sore" afterward and at best hopeful of making his next start, which would be Tuesday in Baltimore. "I'll just have to see how it feels," he said.
Next is for the bullpen.
Workload is one thing. The Rays had to run through five relievers on Thursday, and twice warmed up a sixth, Lance Cormier. Though all but Andy Sonnanstine (who did well over his 31/3 innings) should be available tonight, and closer Rafael Soriano should be back on the go list, Maddon acknowledged the Rays will be hoping starter David Price can work deep into the game.
"It's not optimal," Maddon said.
Performance is another. The injury to J.P. Howell has changed the setup of the bullpen, and the Rays might feel better if rookie Mike Ekstrom and veteran Grant Balfour had looked better.
Ekstrom made the team over Joaquin Benoit (who struck out six in his Triple-A Durham debut on Thursday) and though he got a big strikeout of Adam Jones to end the fifth, things got away from him quickly in the sixth. He allowed a Nick Markakis single then, in what Maddon called the key point of the night, hit Miguel Tejada on an 0-and-2 pitch then walked Luke Scott to load the bases.
That forced Maddon to scrap his plans and go then to Balfour, who had a rough spring and whose velocity, Maddon acknowledged, "is not where it normally had been in the past right yet." The O's didn't hit Balfour all that hard, but enough, with two singles, plus with a wild pitch, to score four.
There was also the matter of the Rays hitters striking out 10 times (though walking eight) and going 2-for-7 with runners in scoring position. And even when they got two runs after O's rookie Brian Matusz walked the bases loaded in the third, it didn't look all that good as their next three hitters saw only four pitches.
Finally, there was more frustration for Carl Crawford, who was the victim of yet another apparent bad call on what looked to be a snazzy sliding catch, the night after getting called out on a swing clearly checked.
"I thought I caught it," Crawford said. "I guess if the players had to vote for instant replay you know where my vote would be."
Maddon said he didn't expect Crawford's frustration to linger.
"I don't think so,' he said. "Carl's in a pretty good place right now. And he knows this crew is leaving."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com