SARASOTA, Fla. — This time, it happened an inning earlier.
Orioles starter Grayson Rodriguez gave up a combined seven runs in the fourth innings of his last two starts, although three of those were unearned after a Rodriguez throwing error.
In Thursday night’s 8-8 tie against the Detroit Tigers, one week from opening day, the problems arose in the third inning when Rodriguez allowed five runs to cross after recording two outs in the inning during his final appearance of spring training.
There have been so many high moments this spring for Rodriguez, the right-handed pitcher who sits near the top of most prospect rankings. There have also been occasional blips — which sometimes become much more noticeable — that have left Rodriguez with mixed-bag outings.
The Orioles, and Rodriguez, have maintained that these are learning opportunities for a 23-year-old starter with a bright future ahead, and there’s no denying that. But as the blips add up, the outlook of where Rodriguez will start the season clouds over.
He’s pushing for a place in Baltimore’s rotation. Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias expressed his hopes this winter that Rodriguez would make it. Manager Brandon Hyde has continually described his belief that Rodriguez will have a long and successful career in the major leagues.
What, then, do they make of three straight outings that include a worrisome inning?
“It’s tough. As a pitcher, you want to go out and compete, throw well,” Rodriguez said. “But also in the spring, it doesn’t matter as much as it does during the season. So really, just taking the positives out of each outing and rolling with that.”
“He’s going to learn to be able to get out of those innings where things aren’t going well,” Hyde said, “to be able to make a pitch when you need to, to either get a double play, or get a punch out, to kind of stop the bleeding. So far this spring, he’s had a bad inning almost every time out.”
Rodriguez might’ve gotten out of the third inning in order had Jonathan Schoop not reached on an infield single to first baseman Ryan Mountcastle — the hard-hit one-hopper deflected off Mountcastle’s glove.
Rodriguez recorded the next two outs, then hit a batter, allowed two singles and finally gave up the hammer blow: a three-run homer from Nick Maton.
On the whole, that was an outlier. So, too, were the consecutive fourth innings he struggled in against the Red Sox. He walked five batters in those two fourth innings and gave up four singles. An RBI double from Christian Arroyo was the lone extra-base hit in the bunch.
“There were definitely some runs out there that we kind of gave away, from a pitching standpoint, leaving balls over the middle of the plate,” Rodriguez said. “That’s really the only thing that I dislike.”
The rest of his spring has been at the opposite end of the spectrum. Exempting the three innings in which he allowed 12 combined runs (nine earned), Rodriguez has allowed just three runs in 13 2/3 innings.
“Good innings, and some tough innings,” Hyde said. “But this is his first true major league spring training, and I think we need to remember he’s a really young player, and sometimes it’s OK to go through some rough patches to know you have to make some adjustments.”
There isn’t much time before opening day for Rodriguez to make those adjustments, at least in the major leagues. When asked whether those struggles could mean Rodriguez begins the year in the minors, Hyde said the club is still evaluating the rotation and the Orioles will make the final decisions at the end of camp. They play their final game of the spring on Monday before heading north to prepare to play in Boston.
The main positive Thursday was how Rodriguez returned in the fourth inning to retire the side in order, getting his pitch count up to 73 as his spring winds to a close. Hyde wanted to see Rodriguez’s slider improve from earlier in the spring, and Rodriguez felt it had.
“Today was probably my best start,” Rodriguez said. “I definitely felt the best.”
For a player who hangs his hat on the process over results, that means more than the crooked numbers that have appeared on the scoreboard in three straight starts. But as the Orioles close in on their opening day roster, there’s suddenly less certainty about Rodriguez’s place on it.