“Big league effort” creates big league feeling watching young Orioles succeed

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“That was a big league effort.”

Those words summarized Orioles manager Brandon Hyde’s glowing assessment of rookie Kyle Bradish, who pitched seven superb innings and struck out 11 in Tuesday’s 5-3 win over St. Louis. The 25-year-old not only became just the seventh pitcher in franchise history to complete seven innings with at least 11 strikeouts and no walks, but the right-hander was just the second hurler in major league history to accomplish that within the first three starts of his career, the other being Stephen Strasburg in his historic 2010 debut. Just three other pitchers have struck out 11 or more without walking a batter in an outing this season — Shohei Ohtani, Max Scherzer, and Dylan Cease.

Pretty good company.

But what was most impressive about Bradish was the way he responded to trouble in the sixth inning when Harrison Bader’s deep drive to left-center bounced off Cedric Mullins and shot past Anthony Santander for an inside-the-park home run. What could have been a catch at the wall turned into two runs, shrinking the Orioles’ lead to three with nobody out and bringing Busch Stadium to life.

Instead of that stroke of misfortune leading to a young pitcher completely unraveling as we often see, however, Bradish proceeded to strike out the next four hitters he faced, including All-Star sluggers Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. Striking out five of his last six hitters, Bradish departed having thrown 90 pitches and induced 14 swinging strikes.

A mid-90s fastball and a swing-and-miss slider will play.

That combination of moxie and talent was very much “big league” and left Orioles fans abuzz for the remainder of the night and even into Wednesday morning. If that weren’t enough, what about rookie Felix Bautista — all 6-foot-5 or more of him — hitting 101.9 mph with his fastball before striking out Tyler O’Neill with some kind of slider wizardry to earn his first major league save?

Talk about fun.

Yes, the last several years have been miserable, but Tuesday was the latest sign of light at the end of the rebuilding tunnel if you’re still hanging on and have watched the Orioles win five of their last six games, something they did just once last season. It’s not about what still amounts to an underwhelming 13-17 record — though a 70-win pace would mark substantial improvement from the last few seasons of 108-plus-loss baseball — as much as the individual performances from rookies such as Bradish and Bautista to go with more seasoned players like Cedric Mullins, who homered and collected four hits on Tuesday night. Austin Hays and Anthony Santander are also off to strong starts at the plate while Ryan Mountcastle is swinging the bat better after a rough April.

To be clear, there’s still a long way to go — the bottom third of the lineup and much of the infield still make you cringe most nights — but the Orioles are beginning to look more interesting than they have in a long time. That they’re doing this while their best prospects are knocking on the door makes it even more exciting, and it’s not as though all has gone to plan either.

Top starter John Means undergoing Tommy John surgery couldn’t have felt more disappointing in the present, but Bruce Zimmermann, Bradish, and Tyler Wells are helping to keep the rotation afloat — at least for now — and all look like pitchers with a real chance to factor into the future. And top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall are both starting for Triple-A Norfolk now.

A right triceps injury may have prevented superstar prospect Adley Rutschman from being the Opening Day catcher, but his debut now feels imminent as he continues his pseudo spring training with the Tides this week. His arrival will surely conjure memories of Matt Wieters’ debut 13 years ago with Orioles fans dreaming of Rutschman living up to the hype. The switch-hitting catcher will not only lengthen the lineup, but the 24-year-old will hopefully symbolize a shift toward more meaningful baseball even if the win-loss record doesn’t improve dramatically overnight. Rodriguez and Hall arriving later this summer will only reinforce that feeling.

And more talent is on the way with general manager Mike Elias following through on his plan of building a minor-league talent pipeline now widely regarded as one of the best in baseball. Questions will — and should — persist about ownership and how much the Angelos family will be willing spend to augment a homegrown roster when the time comes, but the Orioles moving closer to this phase of the process is enough reason for optimism — for now at least.  

No, the rebuild hasn’t been perfect with some questioning why Elias and the Orioles couldn’t pick some spots to spend a little bit and be more aggressive in an effort to speed up the rebuilding process. Los Angeles Angels pitcher Reid Detmers — the 10th overall pick of the 2020 draft — threw a no-hitter on Tuesday night while the Orioles are still waiting for outfielder Heston Kjerstad, the second overall pick that year, to play in his first professional game after a concerning bout of myocarditis and a significant hamstring injury sustained in March. Injuries and poor performance have prevented outfielder Yusniel Diaz — once the centerpiece of the Manny Machado trade — from graduating from Triple-A. Losing Means is still a big blow, whether you valued his short-term presence for the Orioles or saw him as a summer trade chip. 

But watching Bradish — part of the Dylan Bundy trade from a few winters ago — dominate in his third major league start brought a different feeling for which Orioles fans have longed. Not only was Tuesday “a big league effort,” but it brought a big league feeling to contrast so many lousy, listless nights of baseball in recent years. Winning in any shape or form is always fun, but it means more when young players with a real chance to have a future with the Orioles are right in the middle of it.

Fans only hope such performances become the norm in the not-too-distant future.