"It was really neat, it was special," said Cruz, who signed a one-year, $8 million deal the third week of February. "I think I made the right call to come and be part of this organization, be part of this town. Hopefully now I can do some other stuff to contribute for the team."
It was Cruz's glove that set things in motion, helping him settle in as the veteran got the starting nod in left field.
With starter Chris Tillman laboring early and often in a five-inning outing, Cruz made a juggling catch against the left-field wall to retire Xander Bogaerts with two men on in the second inning. Tillman proceeded to get A.J. Pierzynski to fly out and struck out Will Middlebrooks. Cruz worked a walk in the bottom of the frame, advanced to third on Matt Wieters' blooper into center field and scored on Delmon Young's double-play ball. Cruz then capped off his day by taking Red Sox starter Jon Lester deep in his third at-bat in the seventh.
"I think Nellie's on a mission," manager Buck Showalter said. "When I had him in Texas, when we got him in a trade, he was considered a well-above average defender with a plus arm, and it's still there. I think he and Wayne Kirby had a great spring, and I actually think going and making the play he made early kind of got him in the flow a little bit."
"You try to dream about a good start," added Cruz. "I think the dream came true."
After Cruz drilled Lester's first-pitch fastball into the left-field stands, the Orioles' relief corps took care of the rest. Following six ground-ball outs by lefty Zach Britton, Evan Meek made his debut and recorded two outs, exiting after his second walk put the go-ahead run on first. Southpaw Brian Matusz came on and got Pierzynski 0-2 before fielding a grounder back to the mound to send the crowd to its feet.
"Boston is a good hitting team," said Britton, who made his third career relief appearance on Monday and was helped by a pair of outstanding plays from third baseman Ryan Flaherty.
"They are going to get their hits, but if you can pitch out of those jams, then you are going to win the games like you did today. That's our game. Pitch well. Starter does well, bullpen comes in and picks them up. It pitches well. And the offense comes up with a big hit, like Nellie [did]. And our defense was outstanding like usual."
Hunter, officially unveiled as the Orioles' closer before the game, followed Matusz and hit Will Middlebrooks with his third pitch. One out later, he surrendered a single to Dustin Pedroia to let the suspense build. After David Ortiz flied out, Hunter struck out Jackie Bradley Jr. to seal the win and pick up his fifth career save.
"It's life in baseball. You've got to earn everything you get," Hunter said. "One-run game to start the season off against the defending world champs, here we are."
"Tilly kept us in the game and the bullpen came through. It's always scripted out like that, right?"
Not quite. Tillman -- coming off a breakout year in which he was named to the American League All-Star team -- struggled all afternoon, throwing 104 pitches to force an early exit despite holding Boston to one run on seven hits. He worked around a pair of singles in the second inning and stranded runners on second and third in the following frame, getting a strikeout to end each of the first three innings.
"Tillman, he's a good pitcher. Obviously what he did last year, the way he throws the ball, he's tough, so it's nice to try to get him out of there as soon as possible," Boston's Dustin Pedroia said. "He attacks the zone with great stuff."
Boston's biggest threat early came in the third after Ortiz singled and Mike Napoli connected for a two-out double. Tillman struck out Mike Carp to end the inning, allowing only Grady Sizemore's solo homer in the fourth.
"That's the way it pretty much goes with these guys all the time, all the way through," Tillman said of the hard-fought nature Boston brings to the batter's box. "And I think we do the same. That's just going to be the way it is. It's to be expected, these guys go out and foul pitches off. That's their game plan. Coming out on top was big."