Adley Rutschman couldn’t stop laughing. In his hand he held one half of the small, disc-shaped cone, and across from him stood Zak Taylor with furrowed brow and the other chunk of plastic.

Moments earlier, trainer Stephen Dempsey had pitted the two long-time friends against each other inside the Rokke Performance Therapy center in Tigard, Oregon. On one side stood Rutschman, then a soon-to-be catcher for the Baltimore Orioles — but already the centerpiece of their hoped-for resurgence. On the other stood Taylor, who won a national championship alongside Rutschman at Oregon State and continually pushes Rutschman to greater heights in training.

Dempsey laid out three cones between them, and they waited for him to call out which one to grab. At his voice, Rutschman and Taylor lunged forward. Both reached the cone, hands grasping the inner rim, voices rising into screams and then — rip. It split in half.

Neither would lose. Rutschman yelled. Taylor fumed. And then both laughed at the absurdity of their antics.

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“We look like maniacs,” Taylor recalled, one year later.

It wouldn’t be the only time.

Inside Rutschman’s offseason training center, these stories are practically lore. They reverberate across the gym like the yells that echo when it’s just Taylor and Rutschman hitting alone, and they follow Rutschman to each training exercise — as do the watchful eyes of the few athletes and trainers who get the chance to watch him work. To look away is to risk missing a jaw-dropping moment: a ripped cone or a personal best or a batting practice battle taken as seriously as an October at-bat.

Now, as Rutschman and the rest of the Orioles catchers and pitchers prepare to report to spring training in Sarasota on Wednesday, all who’ve followed his rise are wondering the same thing: How good will he be?

Rutschman is already a rising star in the game, bursting onto the scene and handling the cascade of pressure that comes with being a former first-overall pick and the top prospect in baseball with aplomb. After a May call up, he put himself in the rookie of the year conversation.

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He then returned home to Oregon to find the “best version of myself,” as Rutschman said, “because there’s always room to improve.” That led him back to Rokke, where he finds motivation by competing against the group of four to six other professional-level athletes with whom he trains.

In their presence, the fire that’s apparent on the diamond is magnified. For Adley Rutschman to be the best version of himself, it starts in a gym just southwest of Portland.

“He’s one of those guys who probably hates losing more than he likes winning,” Dempsey said. “His ability to jump to that next level is something I haven’t seen with most guys.”

A workout in the snow

The video exploded as soon as Rutschman posted it to his Instagram story.

Shirt off, AirPods peeking from beneath his knit hat, Rutschman held a plate and rotated side to side. He laid in the middle of a snow-covered Oregon street and completed one set of his “shrimping” workout, a move Dempsey borrowed from jiu-jitsu for its focus on improving core strength and hip mobility.

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Rutschman loves the exercise to the point where he turns it into another competition, racing his workout mates to the end of the set. So when the snow fell, Rutschman found a way to outdo his competition again — and draw laughs.

“He just took it to the next level and chose to exaggerate it and make it a little more funny,” said Dempsey, who wasn’t present for the workout but wasn’t surprised to see Rutschman’s shenanigans when he was tagged in the Instagram video.

“That was supposed to be a joke,” Rutschman said. “You had people who took it really seriously, and then you had other people who said, ‘He’s doing the form wrong.’”

But apart from internet critics nitpicking his form, the video offered an inside look at Rutschman’s offseason training regimen. It doesn’t usually involve a shirtless workout in the snow, but it does feature ample competition, a staple in Rutschman’s life since his childhood.

As a kid, Rutschman always wanted his throw to land closest to the trash can placed at home plate during fly ball drills. Pictionary and Scrabble turned serious. Monopoly even more so. On the golf course with his mother, Carol, she and Rutschman tested their putting abilities.

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It’s the way he’s wired, and it’s never changed.

“A lot of the stuff we’d do when he was growing up was competition,” said Randy Rutschman, Adley’s father. “He just loved to compete. They would create their own games. Everything became kind of a game. He was geared and conditioned for the whole to enjoy competition.”

Monopoly games aren’t much different now, but the younger Rutschman’s competitive fire especially showed through in his time preparing for his second season in the majors. He burst onto the scene as a rookie, living up to the hype that has followed him since Oregon State by hitting 13 homers with an .806 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He added to that with stellar defensive metrics and an ability to call a game and frame pitches beyond his 25 years.

But Rutschman wanted better. He wanted to be more consistent at the plate, making small tweaks that will help him avoid slumps — and break out of slumps faster when they inevitably come.

“It’s the best I’ve seen his swing since I’ve known him,” Taylor said. “It’s getting better, he’s hitting balls harder, he’s more adjustable than he’s ever been on both sides of the plate.”

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To get there, Rutschman understood he needed to pace himself this offseason. He took two weeks off, then began to lift and work on his flexibility. The throwing and hitting would come later. There was no tangible feedback from a well-hit ball or perfectly placed throw, but Rutschman found ways to scratch that itch in training.

Using a Keiser machine, the group Rutschman trains with took turns posting scores that measure rotational power. On the push-pull exercise, most of them posted 2,400 watts. The group went back-and-forth before another player put up a score of 2,600 watts.

“It kind of builds up to that scenario where Adley gets the last set, and everybody wants to see how much he can get out of this movement at this number,” Dempsey said.

Rutschman posted a score of 2,800 watts — a massive jump, yet one that looked no more arduous than his other repetitions.

“There’s always that eyes open, kind of ‘whoa’ moment,” Dempsey said.

‘A safe space’

After the bustle of the morning workout sessions, they would pull the previously tucked away batting cages into the center of the gym. Except for Taylor and Rutschman, the gym is, by that point, empty. They like it that way. From there, Taylor — a first baseman and catcher who played independent ball and now works at Rokke — guided Rutschman through his hitting routine.

For hours, yells and jokes bounced around the walls. But when the batting cage comes out and Taylor begins their routine by throwing overhand front toss while sitting on a bucket 15 feet from Rutschman, the only sound is the crack of the bat.

“Hitting, it’s like a safe space for him,” Taylor said.

Although that’s not how those close to Adley have experienced it: Randy Rutschman remembers each at-bat during his son’s Oregon State career, how commentators never failed to mention that his son was the top-ranked prospect in the upcoming draft. It made Randy Rutschman roll his eyes after a while.

Now, on an even larger stage, the expectations that followed Adley Rutschman through the minor leagues and into Camden Yards are even heavier. Everyone is always talking about him, it seems.

“I know there’s a lot of people who think he’s pretty much the second coming of Jesus,” Taylor said.

But inside the gym, standing at the plate with a bat in his hands, all that falls away. Instead, there’s the ball Taylor throws. Rutschman tracks it. He hits it. He resets and waits for the next offering. After the overhand front toss, they move to a pitching machine, cranking the speed up as high as possible on a hard foam ball to maximize spin rate to mimic top-of-zone fastballs from 30 feet away. The reaction required is so quick there’s no time to stop and think about anything else.

After that, they play a game, with Taylor stepping in where the machine stood. The count is 0-0 and Taylor tries to get his friend out, mixing pitches and locations and always ending with a, “Rutsch, I’m sorry,” because “I’m changing speeds a little too much, I’m trying to hump up on a fastball more than what it would normally be.”

It’s supposed to be batting practice — you’ve seen the way that usually goes — but neither of them wants to give in, just like the time they wound up with one half of a ripped cone in each hand.

“That’s fun for us, because he knows I’m always trying to beat him,” Taylor said. “It’s never something like, ‘Oh, I’m trying to make you feel good, get your work in.’ No, no, no. I’m trying to come after you right now. I don’t want you to win. I want you to swing and miss. I want you to strike out.”

Finally, once the high-intensity batting practice is done, the two friends have a chance to talk. Earlier this month, a day before Rutschman flew out of Oregon to arrive early for his first spring training as an established major leaguer, Taylor and Rutschman sat down for a frank discussion.

Taylor watched as Rutschman rose to stardom at Oregon State. He now has a front row seat to his rise in Major League Baseball.

How, Taylor wondered, does his friend deal with it all?

“You can get yourself so wrapped up in what people think of you, their views of you, what kind of year you should have, and you can just keep going and it snowballs,” Taylor said. “He just tries to find those little moments of joy.”

The pressure started in college. It hasn’t ceased. Rutschman was a Golden Spikes winner, a national champion, a top prospect and is seen now as a savior for a baseball-starved city. That’s the noise that swirls outside Rokke Performance Therapy.

On the inside — and in Rutschman’s head — there’s another frequency. He knows there’s no erasing the attention paid to him. He instead replaces it, filling his mind with more immediate concerns: a cone to be ripped, a machine workout to be won, a ball to be punished.

andy.kostka@thebaltimorebanner.com

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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