SARASOTA, Fla. — As Grayson Rodriguez stood beneath a palm tree down the first-base line, addressing his third outing of spring training, he was adamant about one thing. His stuff, as baseball minds like to call it, was as crisp as it had been all spring. Maybe even more so.

At least through three innings. That’s when the Orioles right-handed pitching prospect struck out six batters with a fastball that touched 98 mph, a changeup that dipped just below the zone and a slider that made more than one hitter look silly with a wild hack.

But then, what differed in the fourth inning during Sunday’s 6-4 victory against the Boston Red Sox?

Rodriguez faced five batters in the fourth and didn’t record an out, allowing three singles and walking two before he was pulled. His mentality changed some, Rodriguez admitted, by “trying to throw strikes” rather than executing independently of those thoughts.

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And as a result, the 23-year-old allowed four runs to spike his spring training ERA.

Rodriguez, though, isn’t looking at any statistics from his spring appearances. At this point, the process means everything. And by throwing 61 pitches and cruising through the first three innings, Rodriguez feels he’s on path to reaching a point when results finally do matter.

“I don’t think we’re necessarily worried about results,” Rodriguez said. “That’s something that’s kind of been our motto coming up through the minor leagues. All that matters is what you do in the big leagues.”

Unlike the first two appearances of his spring, when Rodriguez faced lineups for the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins that were full of regular major leaguers, the Red Sox played split-squad games Sunday and sent a lineup mostly full of minor leaguers.

Rodriguez blew through them over the first three innings, retiring nine of his first 10 batters. In those three innings, Rodriguez attacked the zone; of his 40 pitches in those three frames, 26 of them were strikes.

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It’s that kind of performance that seems to warrant a place in the opening day rotation. Rodriguez has pitched well this spring to put himself as a firm candidate for one of the five spots, alongside Kyle Gibson, Cole Irvin, Dean Kremer and Kyle Bradish, among others.

“As we go forward, it’s good to have those successful moments like in the first three innings. He was doing really well,” said catcher Adley Rutschman, who hit a grand slam. “And then keep the foot on the gas and continue to attack the zone and get guys 0-1.”

The fourth-inning performance, of course, was a different look — one that could give Baltimore’s brass just a second of pause, with only nine of his final 21 pitches thrown for strikes. But having that in a spring training game isn’t a cause for concern, manager Brandon Hyde said, in the grand scheme of a rotation competition.

“I think that’s just a good experience for him to learn from,” Hyde said. “His stuff is there. Now it’s about really competing and using it in the strike zone more. He did that the first three innings, the fourth inning got away from him a little bit.”

For as good as Rodriguez’s changeup was early, he began placing it too low in the fourth inning, which didn’t force the swings-and-misses that pitch can so frequently warrant. His slider, which he tried to throw harder Sunday, was spotty with velocity and placement later in his outing, Rodriguez said.

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Rodriguez has steadily built up this spring, from two innings against Detroit, three against the Twins and three-plus innings against the Red Sox. He’ll continue to expand in his next appearance, proving that one difficult inning in the spring won’t carry over into anything beyond — particularly the regular season.

“I think it’s OK, honestly, to have those types of innings,” Hyde said. “We’ll see how he bounces back.”

Venezuela's Anthony Santander hits a home run during the second inning of a World Baseball Classic game against the Dominican Republic, Saturday, March 11, 2023, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

WBC updates

In four innings for Israel, right-hander Dean Kremer played every role of an ace for his country. Kremer held Nicaragua scoreless, allowing three hits with one walk and four strikeouts.

He’s not the only Oriole competing in the World Baseball Classic. Right-hander Ryan Long, an Orioles minor leaguer player for Great Britain, struck out Mike Trout but allowed a three-run homer to Kyle Schwarber. Cedric Mullins may appear for the U.S. against Mexico on Sunday night, and outfielder Anthony Santander exploded onto the scene Saturday in Venezuela’s win against the Dominican Republic.

Santander crushed a solo shot off right-hander Sandy Alcántara, made a diving catch in right field and added a triple later in the game.

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“How awesome was that?” Hyde said. “To do that on that stage, I texted him after the game, so proud of him, so happy for him.”

Injury updates

Ryan O’Hearn tweaked his right knee Saturday while making a play in the outfield and is considered day-to-day. He underwent imaging Sunday, but those results weren’t immediately available to the public.

Hyde expressed hope that it was a minor issue, but the injury still comes at a disappointing time for O’Hearn, who’s competing for a place in Baltimore as a backup first baseman and outfielder. O’Hearn is hitting 9-for-19 this spring with a double and a homer.

Left-hander Nick Vespi is scheduled to pitch Monday in a spring training game for the first time since undergoing offseason hernia surgery. The southpaw said he is still on track to being available come opening day at the end of this month.

Left-hander DL Hall’s live bullpen session went “extremely well,” Hyde said, and he’s due to pitch another live session Tuesday. Hall’s buildup was delayed after a lumbar discomfort in his back, and Hall admitted he likely won’t be fully stretched out as a starting pitcher for opening day.

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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