You could almost hear the hiss of Grayson Rodriguez’s opening salvo — a batch of 100 mph fastballs that smoked a path through the humid Baltimore air.
As if it wasn’t clear enough from the 23-year-old proudly huffing his chest while throwing darts against the Dodgers, who boast one of the most fearsome lineups in baseball, the radar gun told the story. His first inning Monday night saw him throw eight pitches harder than he’s ever thrown before in the major leagues.
What makes Rodriguez fearsome is his ability to translate his competitiveness through his velocity, or whipping his aggression into the change-up that drops right as batters think to swing.
Through five innings in a ballpark more frenzied than on a usual Monday night, with a big market ballclub in town to test the postseason mettle of an Orioles team on an eight-game win streak, Rodriguez’s comeback from Triple-A Norfolk was something you could just feel.
But riding the highs of Rodriguez’s emotional style has its risks. And in the third go-around against him, in the sixth inning, the Dodgers’ veteran lineup started to figure some things out.
If not for greedily going after a double, Mookie Betts would have been safely aboard on a centerfield line drive. Freddie Freeman followed up by taking a ball to the warning track for a triple. Will Smith knocked him in on a left field single. Max Muncy walked.
It was this sequence that led Brandon Hyde to pull the plug on Rodriguez’s first start since May 26 — but not soon enough to save the remaining runners from coming home on Chris Taylor’s grand slam.
Rodriguez may one day be a front-rotation starter, maybe even an ace. But no amount of Triple-A time is going to iron out the wrinkles — only experience at the big league level can do that.
“That’s a loaded lineup, a lot of veterans in it,” Rodriguez said later, wearing defeat surprisingly well. “It was a lot of fun. It was challenging. I’m glad I got that experience.”
That’s going to tie knots in the risk-averse Orioles, who lost a little ground chasing down Tampa Bay on Monday night. At this point, they appear headed to the playoffs, but the margins of the AL East could be painfully close.
With these stakes, leaning into an unpolished starter like Rodriguez might feel a little bit like putting a teenager with their learner’s permit into the driver’s seat of a Corvette. But there’s no other way to see if Rodriguez is that next-level starter without giving him some time behind the wheel.
As my Banner colleague Jon Meoli wrote, the Orioles are in a key evaluation period for their pitching staff, which seems to need at least a little bolstering. It was, after all, Bryan Baker who gave up the grand slam, and not Rodriguez — a reminder of perhaps the more pressing need in the bullpen.
But if Rodriguez is to meet his potential, he needs investment. And it’s the kind of investment that will continue to put the Orioles in vulnerable positions on nights like Monday against teams like the Dodgers, who have a knack for cracking starters after a few go-arounds.
Even after Betts barreled up on Rodriguez in the fifth, manager Brandon Hyde hoped to give his bullpen a break by sending him out for another inning.
“I thought he was still throwing the ball well,” Hyde said. “Thought he still had more left in the tank. We just didn’t pitch our best in the sixth inning.”
That’s going to happen now and then, more so with a young pitcher like Rodriguez.
Maybe Rodriguez really did need fine-tuning back in the minors, but that feels like a one-time trick. Calling him up again implies that the club feels he can help them this year — and he’s demonstrated in several outings that he can. He sure doesn’t have much left to prove against Triple-A hitting, which he dominated.
There are ways the Orioles can mitigate their risks: They might stretch some starters longer, feeling better about a deeper outing at this point in the year (Kyle Bradish pitched into the eighth inning on Sunday). They might be able to squeeze a sixth starter in the rotation depending on what the trade market yields for them, or if they determine Cole Irvin merits a few more looks.
But elevating Rodriguez to the kind of pitcher they don’t otherwise have requires the Orioles to put some skin in the game.
Sometimes, he will give you goosebumps. And sometimes he will get you burned.
This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Freddie Freeman’s name.