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Tampa Bay Rays win opener with ninth-inning rally against Baltimore Orioles

ST. PETERSBURG — The haze that hung over Tropicana Field through Tuesday's opener from the pregame smoke machines sparked flashbacks of 1999, when another bright idea went similarly bad.

But the daze over the thrilling finish to the Rays' 4-3 victory over the Orioles was reminiscent of more recent vintage, to 2003 and Carl Crawford's dramatics in his first opening day as a Ray, and to 2008 when the wild game-ending celebrations were common occurrences.

"Our guys were just waiting for something good to happen; I felt it all night, and it did," manager Joe Maddon said. "With all the drama built and everything we've been talking about coming into this season, it was kind of nice to get it done that way."

For most of the night, it looked like it would be a disappointing start to the season of grand expectations, as the Rays trailed early before the sellout crowd of 36,973 and couldn't catch up, despite some good signs, including a massive homer by Evan Longoria into the upper deck, the second such shot in Trop history.

"A very interesting first game of the year," Maddon said.

"Only fitting," starter James Shields said. "This is the way we want to start our season off."

Down to their last two outs, the Rays rallied like they did so often (11 times, including six in the first 34 home games) in their 2008 champion­ship season.

"That definitely felt like an '08 win," Crawford said. "We did that a lot that year. Hopefully we can get that feeling back."

Sean Rodriguez, in his first game as a Ray, singled to left. "That's huge," he said. "You just want to get out there and help your team out as much as you can."

Pinch-hitter Kelly Shoppach, in his first at-bat as a Ray, doubled high off the left-centerfield wall. "I gained a lot of fans," he said. "Not only out there but in the clubhouse. You help win ballgames, they tend to like you a lot more."

After O's closer Mike Gonzalez intentionally walked Jason Bartlett to set up a left-on-left matchup, Crawford, who could walk away at the end of the season as a free agent, delivered the walkoff hit, slicing a double to right that scored two.

That was only slightly less dramatic than his 2003 opening-night performance, when he made manager Lou Piniella a winner in his first game with a three-run homer to beat Boston.

"I'll take it," Crawford said. "I'm not going to ask too many questions about how I do it."

Coming off a tremendous spring, with an MLB-best 20-8-2 record, and coming into the season with high expectations, the Rays got a quick pregame speech from principal owner Stuart Sternberg that now seems prescient, as he told then how talented they were but reminded them of the hard work and determination it would take to succeed.

There were some mistakes early and also some good things. Pat Burrell chugging through a stop sign and scoring their first run. Some dazzling defense by centerfielder B.J. Upton and Rodriguez. A good-enough start by James Shields though, pitching with his very pregnant wife, Ryane, who is due Saturday, watching from the stands, he um, labored at times, allowing a career-high-matching three homers, all solo shots. And a difficult 26-pitch debut by new closer Rafael Soriano, who ended up with the win.

The haze that hung over the field, burning Maddon's eyes and blurring Upton's vision at times, was the result of smoke machines used as part of the extensive and elaborate pregame introductions. It wasn't quite as bad as the 1999 home opener, when pre-game fireworks created enough smoke that Rays outfielders lost a ball that led to two runs in a 4-1 loss.

"I probably wouldn't recommend that before a game anymore," Upton said.

"Now it's okay," Maddon said afterward. "It wasn't okay before."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com

Tampa Bay Rays win opener with ninth-inning rally against Baltimore Orioles 04/06/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 7, 2010 7:52am]
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