BALTIMORE - Writing about Opening Day is like writing about the opening tee shot of the Masters. It might be a hint of future performance, or it might turn out to be a picturesque moment devoid of meaning.
Friday afternoon, the Twins lost to a bad team on Opening Day. Before a ninth- inning rally, they had managed four hits, all singles. Their 4-2 defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles gave them 100 losses in their past 163 games.
For the Yankees, this kind of performance might require four firings and one news cycle filled with ridicule.
For the Twins, this might actually qualify as progress.
That's how lousy the Twins were in 2011: Any sign of competence portends improvement.
Last year on Opening Day, the Twins lost 13-3 at Toronto, and prized new infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka couldn't make it through his first inning without botching two plays.
As meaningless as most Opening Day performances can be, last year's foreshadowed the worst season in Twins history, a 99-loss campaign in which they failed to stand in the right spot on cutoff plays and their fielders often appeared to be auditioning to become extras in "The Walking Dead."
Friday, new shortstop Jamey Carroll made three deft plays. A year after Delmon Young and others roamed left field as if it was festooned with land mines, Josh Willingham threw out a runner at home from left and hit his first homer as a Twin, a two-run shot in the ninth.
Joe Mauer stayed healthy for the entire game, hitting one line drive and drawing two walks. Denard Span, who has admitted he experienced further concussion symptoms this spring, got two of the Twins' six hits. First baseman Chris Parmelee made a diving stop down the line. And starting pitcher Carl Pavano somehow lasted seven innings despite throwing a fastball averaging about 85 miles per hour, or about the speed of a big-league breaking pitch.
For a contender, a loss to Baltimore would be one of those games that threatens to haunt you in September. For a team coming off the most disappointing and embarrassing season in franchise history, it was a strangely comforting afternoon.
"We fought to the end, gave ourselves our chance," Carroll said. "I think it can give you some sort of positive feeling going into the next day. Gets the first-day jitters out of the way. Hopefully we can go from here."
Of course, there were bad omens, as well. Pavano gave up four runs. Right fielder Ryan Doumit misplayed a drive, and third baseman Danny Valencia reacted slowly on a grounder to his left.
But no realistic observer can expect the Twins to contend this season, not with a pitching staff that enters April without 40 percent of its starting rotation and with a bullpen filled with guys still trying to learn each other's names.
No matter what the Twins' brain trust argues, this season is not so much about contending as it is about regaining self-respect. This franchise won't ever be able to talk about "The Twins Way" again if 2012 turns out to be a reprise of 2011.
"A good ballgame, we made a run there at the end," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "But a loss is a loss."
Not really. Some losses are the result of the other team beating you. Others are the result of a team defeating itself. Friday, the Orioles won on merit, as starter Jake Arrieta dominated and Nick Markakis hit an opposite-field home run.
The first step for the 2012 Twins is proving they won't give games away the way they did last season. Friday, they didn't commit an error or make a fundamental mistake or miss a sign or fail to turn a double play, as they did so often last year.
For a contender, Friday would have been nothing more than a disappointing loss. For the reigning worst team in the American League, making it through Opening Day without embarrassment or injury made it not such a terrible day.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org