Hard-throwing Grayson Rodriguez brings new two-seamer in Orioles spring debut


SARASOTA, Fla. — The line formed just as Grayson Rodriguez was finishing his warm-up in the Ed Smith Stadium bullpen. Essentially the entire Baltimore Orioles pitching staff — more than a dozen players in matching black T-shirts — stood one after another on the border between foul territory and the right-field grass, and when Rodriguez stepped out of the dugout for his spring training debut, he high-fived each and every one. On the stadium PA system, the Grateful Dead began to play.

Truckin’, got my chips cashed in.
Keep truckin’, like the doo-dah man.
Together, more or less in line.
Just keep truckin’ on.

This, you see, is supposed to be the Orioles’ year. Well, it’s really supposed to be the Los Angeles Dodgers’ year, and it will probably be another Atlanta Braves year, but it could finally be the Philadelphia Phillies’ year, the New York Yankees are building like it’s another one of their years, and the Houston Astros just keep having years…

But the Orioles won 101 games last year. They have the reigning Rookie of the Year in Gunnar Henderson, young talent scattered at almost every other position, Craig Kimbrel now in their bullpen, and Corbin Burnes suddenly leading their rotation.

This could be the year the Orioles have been waiting for.

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If, of course, their health sustains, their young talent matures, and their pitching staff performs.

“Just continue to do what we’ve done,” said Henderson, who took batting practice for the first time this spring on Tuesday after dealing with oblique discomfort. “Just putting in the right work every day, and that’ll put us in the right spot that we want to be.”

In other words, just keep truckin’ on.

Which is where Rodriguez comes in.

In terms of young talent, the 24-year-old belongs in the conversation with Henderson, budding superstar Adley Rutschman and up-and-coming prospect Jackson Holliday. Rodriguez was the 11th overall draft pick in 2018, entered last season as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball, and made his big-league debut in April. After two awful months, he was sent back to the minors only to return as one of the majors’ best starters in the second half before the Texas Rangers knocked him around in Game 2 of the American League Division Series.

Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me.
Other times I can barely see.
Lately, it occurs to me.
What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Tuesday was Rodriguez’s first start since the Orioles’ early playoff exit. He struck out two, walked one and allowed a down-the-line homer — “I like to think that doesn’t happen in Camden,” he said — in two innings against a split-squad Detroit Tigers lineup. Rodriguez threw a first-pitch strike to only three of seven hitters, and he had a three-ball count against four of them, but his velocity was comfortably into the upper 90s. It was a fine outing by early spring standards; an early look at a big arm that looms large for the Orioles’ chances.

“It felt good to really just get out there, see some hitters in a different uniform, and just rip some fastballs,” Rodriguez said.

In the wake of their Burnes-trade euphoria, Orioles spring training opened with a splash of cold water for their pitching staff. General manager Mike Elias announced that Kyle Bradish (the team’s Game 1 starter last season) had a sprained elbow ligament and would open the season on the injured list. Not only that, but John Means (the former All-Star returning from two years of injury) was a month behind schedule and would also open on the IL. The Orioles have some depth with Dean Kreamer, Tyler Wells, and Cole Irvin, but a rotation headlined by Burnes, Rodriguez and Bradish, with Kreamer and Means solidifying the back end, has a chance to be strong. Burnes is about as close to a sure thing as it gets, but Bradish’s health has become a wild card — he’s recently started playing catch — and Rodriguez looms as a 6-foot-5 X-factor.

After pitching to a 7.35 ERA in his first 10 big-league starts, Rodriguez was banished to Triple A for seven weeks. He returned in mid-July, having largely ditched his ineffective cutter. His fastball usage, which was already high, went even higher, and his raw stuff was measurably better. His 2.58 second-half ERA was the fifth-best in baseball (Bradish’s 2.34 was second-best).

This spring, Rodriguez has further tweaked his repertoire by adding a two-seam fastball. It’s mostly intended as another weapon against right-handers, though Rodriguez said he plans to use it occasionally against lefties as well. Of his 37 pitches on Tuesday, Rodriguez said “a decent amount” were two-seamers.

“Tough to tell because he’s throwing 99 (mph),” manager Brandon Hyde said. “So, I couldn’t really tell (how many he threw) from my angle. But he hit 100 a few times, and the fastball was really good, just a tough time staying ahead in the count.”

As for the mostly abandoned cutter, it’s back in the mix, perhaps not as a singular weapon but as a pitch Rodriguez sees as important to the total picture.

“I think the cutter really helps me throw the slider,” Rodriguez said. “That’s something we’re still going to keep throwing. Not as much (as the first half of last season), but it definitely helps the development. Sets the slider up to be a better pitch, so the cutter’s still there.”

Rodriguez said last season taught him how to navigate the big leagues. He learned from failure, and he learned from success. He’s shown what he can do, and the Orioles need him if they’re going to get where they’re trying to go.

“We expect a lot out of him this year,” Hyde said. “He’s still in his first full year, and he’s still really young, but he’s got great stuff. And he showed in the second half what kind of pitcher he’s got a chance to be.”

Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home.
Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong.
Back home, sit down and patch my bones.
And get back truckin’ on.

(Photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)





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