BALTIMORE — Orioles rookie pitcher Grayson Rodriguez learned the difference between a good major league outing and a bad one isn’t much on Tuesday night.
Making his Camden Yards debut in the 12-8 win over Oakland, the 23-year-old flashed much to like over 4 1/3 innings, striking out six and registering 15 swinging strikes. His ability to miss bats stands out from the rest of the current starting rotation, and that was even before Rodriguez started mixing in more changeups the second time through the order to go with his power fastball and slider.
Though struggling reliever Austin Voth did Rodriguez no favors in allowing all three inherited runners to score in the fifth, surrendering five earned runs and four walks — three in that final frame of work — certainly wasn’t good enough. Baltimore’s top pitching prospect allowed a pair of RBI singles with two strikes and two outs, again demonstrating the razor-thin difference between winning and losing in the majors.
“I thought he had better stuff than he did in Texas,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I thought the fastball had a ton of life. He was throwing 97, 98. I thought the slider got better as the outing went along. I thought he made some mistakes 0-2 — some young pitcher mistakes. He got beat three times 0-2 where he has the leverage. Hopefully, he learns from that.
“The guy’s throwing 98 with a good slider and a really good changeup. There’s places to go when you’re ahead in the count to get an easy out or to get a punch-out. He had a little tough time doing that tonight, but for me, the stuff was better tonight.”
It’s the kind of lesson you’re not going to learn returning to Triple-A Norfolk. Allowing all six hits on a count of 0-2 or 1-2, Rodriguez is finding the margin for error to be much smaller in the majors rather than simply mowing down lesser competition with imperfect pitches. Adjustments will need to be made.
But that’s part of the process as we often mistake a prospect graduating from the minors as a sign that his development is complete rather than it really only continuing against the highest level of competition in the world. While the last-place Athletics hardly clobbered Rodriguez on Tuesday, they were still capable of taking advantage of shaky execution, something most minor-league hitters aren’t able to do.
“The mistakes are amplified. These guys can hit,” Rodriguez said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing against. They’re big league-caliber players. They can get the barrel on the baseball. If you’re 0-2 and they’re in protect mode and your pitch is too close to the zone, they’re going to swing at it and probably hit it.”
With right-hander Kyle Bradish scheduled to make a rehab start at Double-A Bowie on Friday and eligible to return from the 15-day injured list next week, the question now becomes what the Orioles will do with Rodriguez and the rest of their rotation. While confirming the 2018 first-round pick would take his next turn, Hyde didn’t sound keen to the idea of a six-man rotation, meaning someone will either need to move to the bullpen or come off the 26-man roster.
It’d be one thing to option Rodriguez if he were being crushed by opposing hitters and you feared him losing confidence, but Tuesday’s struggles were more nuanced, seemingly stemming from a lack of experience rather than being in over his head. And while the fifth-inning walks were a little more concerning, they came in an outing in which he threw 99 pitches, the most he’s thrown in a game since a start at Low-A Delmarva in 2019.
Though likely accompanied by some fifth-inning fatigue, that was a very important step.
“Being able to just feel like the reins were kind of off, it’s something I hadn’t been able to experience in a long time,” Rodriguez said. “Just being able to just see what the pitch count was, it made me pretty happy.”
Yes, the Orioles are trying to compete for a playoff spot in 2023, and Rodriguez will need to be better. But we’re talking about a young pitcher with the most upside of anyone in the organization and a rotation that isn’t off to a great start overall or full of established All-Star-caliber hurlers.
It was one thing to hold Rodriguez back in the minors for a little longer after a disappointing spring, but he is here now and hardly embarrassed himself through two starts. The lessons learned from Tuesday’s struggles aren’t happening in the minors, making it difficult to justify sending him back down.
“You see guys start to mature, and guys start to get games under their belt to be better baseball players,” Hyde said. “Grayson’s just starting. He’s going to make mistakes, but he’s got a really good arm. We’re really excited about him going forward.”
Mountcastle steals show
First baseman Ryan Mountcastle continued his blistering start to the season with two home runs and nine RBIs, the latter tying the club’s single-game record shared by Baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Murray and Orioles Hall of Fame inductee Jim Gentile.
After Oakland manager Mark Kotsay intentionally walked Adley Rutschman to get to Mountcastle — who had already homered and driven in five runs — in the seventh inning, the right-handed slugger demolished a Dany Jimenez center-cut slider 456 feet for a grand slam over the big wall in left. The longest homer of Mountcastle’s career put the 26-year-old in exclusive company as Gentile drove in nine at Minnesota in the midst of his outstanding 1961 campaign and Murray collected nine RBIs in a three-homer game at California in 1985.
“Two greats,” said Mountcastle, who now has five homers and a league-leading 18 RBIs on the young season. “To tie them in any category is super special. A pretty cool night.”
Mountcastle became the first major leaguer with nine RBIs in a game since Adam Duvall did it for Atlanta on Sept. 29, 2020.
While no one expected anything close to a packed Camden Yards against Oakland on a Tuesday night in April, an announced crowd of 12,305 for Rodriguez’s home debut reflects how far the Orioles still have to go to attract larger crowds.
To its credit, the organization announced the Rodriguez T-shirt giveaway Saturday morning when it was clear he’d be starting on Tuesday, but not coming close to even 20,000 for the first home start of the Orioles’ best pitching prospect since the pre-injury Dylan Bundy reflects a brand enduring much damage in recent years. Of course, Baltimore drew only 17,573 for Rutschman’s debut last May, but that came with only a same-day warning and fell on the same day as the Preakness Stakes.
Anyone paying attention knows the Orioles are talented and fun to watch, but they still have a long way to go for more people to take notice.