ST.PETERSBURG -- Forget Baltimore's new-look offense, an upgraded facet of the team that has dominated offseason and early spring headlines. The real wonderment two games into 2011 has been on the mound, where Orioles starters have produced consecutive lights-outs performances to secure their first series win of the season with Saturday's 3-1 victory against the defending American League East champion Rays.
Capped by a spectacular game-ending catch by right fielder Nick Markakis, Saturday's game featured O's starter Chris Tillman as the latest show-stealer. The 22-year-old right-hander posted six no-hit innings, silencing the Rays bats and the crowd of 22,164 at Tropicana Field into stunned silence.
"What more can you ask from your starting pitchers?," said second baseman Brian Roberts, whose three-run homer in the eighth inning snapped a scoreless tie.
"Chris was as good as I have ever seen him here."
Tillman, who won the final four-man rotation spot out of camp, walked two in the first three innings and was helped by several defensive plays behind him, including third baseman Mark Reynolds' sliding grab in foul territory and Markakis' on-the-run grab to retire Ben Zobrist in the third. He settled down after that, retiring 11 straight at one point and rewarding the Orioles' good faith.
"I know I was the underdog going into Spring Training," said Tillman, who felt he "absolutely" had something to prove with Saturday's start. "I read all of it. I went out there with a chip on my shoulder. I had to."
"What Tilly did tonight, it was unbelievable," said closer Kevin Gregg, who picked up his first save in dramatic fashion courtesy of Markakis' jumping grab.
"I don't think anybody expected that [performance]," Gregg added of Tillman, who had an uneven spring. "We all know he's a good pitcher, but to take this Rays lineup and do what he did to it, it was fun to watch. It kept us all in the game. We were all excited, on the edge of our seats the whole time."
Gregg had a similar effect on the nerves, as the right-hander made his Orioles debut with a two-run lead in the ninth inning. Gregg allowed a leadoff single to B.J. Upton, who was erased with Matt Joyce's fielder's choice. Gregg then issued a walk to Kelly Shoppach to bring the winning run to the plate in Elliot Johnson. Gregg sent Johnson down looking on a four-pitch strikeout to put the game in the hands of Zobrist, whose drive to right sent Markakis back toward the wall.
"I knew I had to go for it," Markakis said. "It was one of those do-or-die plays."
It was also the kind of catch that earns accolades and makes highlight reels, honors which frequently elude the introverted Markakis.
"I have said over and over again -- it's a crime that he hasn't won a Gold Glove by this point," Roberts said. "To me, he is the best right fielder in the game. I have watched it for six years. If you didn't believe me before now, I hope you do now."
Added manager Buck Showalter: "You'd have to show me somebody better. We get the great fortune to watch him play every day, and I would certainly debate that point on Nicky's behalf. ... If we can play better as a team this year, I think more people around baseball will realize what we already know."
The Orioles, who are 2-0 on the season, are well on their way. The O's didn't notch their first series win in 2010 until their eighth series. The starting pitching has held the Rays to no runs and just three hits over 14 innings, and the offense -- buoyed by a healthy Roberts -- has given their starters support. Roberts' three-run homer on Saturday night gave him five RBIs in two games.
"I was trying to go in and I left it out over the plate and up," Rays lefty reliever Jake McGee said of the fateful pitch to Roberts.
While Rays reliever Kyle Farnsworth has better career numbers, manager Joe Maddon wanted Roberts to hit right-handed and put in McGee, who has the chance to be one of Tampa Bay's late-inning relievers.
"He hit a mistake tonight pretty much," McGee said, "and made me pay for it."
The Orioles also made the Rays pay on the basepaths, as Felix Pie -- who was just inserted into the game as a pinch-runner in the top of the seventh -- caught Upton dead to rights at home plate to end the bottom of the inning.
Given Tillman's high pitch count, Showalter inserted Jeremy Accardo to start the seventh, and after the reliever recorded two outs, Upton's line drive to center field broke up the collective no-hit bid. Upton stole second, and Accardo intentionally walked Joyce to get to Shoppach. Shoppach lifted a bloop single into left field, and Pie came up firing, nailing Upton to end the inning in emphatic fashion. Catcher Matt Wieters, whom Showalter has praised for his plate-blocking skills, put on the tag to keep the game scoreless.
The Rays pulled within two in the eighth, when Michael Gonzalez, the lone lefty in the Orioles' bullpen, walked the first two batters he faced and was lifted one out later in favor of Koji Uehara. Uehara struck out pinch-hitter Sam Fuld, but Manny Ramirez's RBI single put Tampa Bay on the board.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.