BRADENTON, Fla. — James McCann first saw it earlier in the week, when he and his other Orioles teammates left a live batting practice session with the same befuddlement after facing Cole Irvin. The velocity, for one, was the obvious distinguishing factor. But the movement? The way the ball came out of Irvin’s left hand?

“It kind of caught us off guard,” McCann said.

On Sunday, in Irvin’s first spring training start for the Orioles, he befuddled a whole new group of batters in two standout innings that displayed the vast strides Irvin undertook this offseason. Out came a 94-mph sinker, then another sinker on the black to strike out Pirates outfielder Bryan Reynolds at 95.3 mph. Once, a big 96 popped up onto the LECOM Park scoreboard.

There was Irvin, pumping gas.

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The Orioles left-hander saw significant velocity upticks with each of his pitch offerings in Sunday’s 2-0 win against the Pirates. With each zip, Irvin’s velocity improvements became more impressive. His average velocity on each pitch was at least 1.3 mph faster than his average last season, and his cutter was up 2.5 mph.

Even before that extra oomph, Irvin figured to be a strong candidate to make Baltimore’s rotation. With Kyle Bradish’s UCL sprain and John Means’ delayed offseason, Irvin and Tyler Wells are the presumed replacements.

An extra bit of velocity, then, can only help Irvin’s chances to win — and maintain — a place in the rotation come opening day.

“A lot of the hard work in the offseason is starting to pay off,” Irvin said. “That’s what I attribute it to. It was a longer offseason for me because I gave myself no breather of rest, because I just wanted to get better. So far, we’re starting to see the labors of the work.”

Irvin threw only 28 pitches Sunday, but they left a positive impression on the winter strength and pitching programs he went through.

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At Phoenix Physical Therapy in North Carolina, Irvin lifted more than ever before. At Tread Athletics, he learned how to harness his newfound strength without compromising the command of each pitch.

Irvin peppered the strike zone against Pittsburgh with five pitches, including a curveball that exhibited more bite than usual (up 1.6 mph, per Statcast). His cutter induced two of the six whiffs he forced. He left the mound with more to prove — there’s ample time before opening day — but established a solid base from which to begin.

“I’m not striving for that,” Irvin said of the velocity gain. “I’m not shooting for that. I’m just trying to be a better version of myself than I was last year, and I was pretty good in that second half. Just trying to build on good things and good habits.”

Orioles left-hander Cole Irvin catches the ball in the first inning of Baltimore's spring training game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday, Feb. 25, in Bradenton, Florida.
Irvin threw 28 pitches and showed an increase in velocity from last season. (Ulysses Muñoz)

The difficulties for Irvin began early in 2023. He was an offseason trade acquisition from the Athletics, and yet three starts (during which he allowed 15 runs) into his time in Baltimore, the Orioles optioned Irvin to Triple-A. He returned throughout the season as a reliever or spot starter, but he never earned back his place in the rotation.

There’s an opportunity here, however, for that to change. The injury to Bradish and the slow buildup for Means make Irvin a strong rotation candidate — particularly if he maintains his velocity.

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“He’s a big piece for us, man,” McCann said. “I really think, if he pitches like he did today, that’s going to be huge for us. Obviously, he has a history of throwing the ball well when he was with Oakland. Last year there were signs of it. And I think he can be a big piece for us.”

Manager Brandon Hyde said Irvin’s command on the inside of the plate against right-handed batters reminded him of when Irvin was at his best last year. Irvin placed his cutter and four-seamer under the hands of righties Sunday, which was a “point of emphasis,” Hyde said.

When Irvin hit 95.9 mph on Sunday, it marked what would have been the fastest pitch of his career. According to Statcast, Irvin’s regular-season high is 95.3 mph. He reached his would-be new high without having to exert too much energy, he said. Plus, when pitching in front of a packed Camden Yards, Irvin figures the adrenaline might add an even larger tick to his velocity.

That all comes later, though, once Irvin shows this flash is reality that can translate to the regular season.

“I’m just glad the hard work is showing up,” Irvin said. “There’s still a lot of spring training left to go, and I’m just trying to maintain it and put my best foot forward.”

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No concern from Kimbrel

Right-hander Craig Kimbrel cut his live bullpen session short by about five pitches Saturday after experiencing lower-body tightness, he said, but the presumed Orioles closer isn’t concerned about the hiccup. He said the tightness has occurred other times early in spring training and it hasn’t been an issue.

Kimbrel, signed this offseason to replace injured closer Félix Bautista, said he will throw again Monday. The decision to cut his session short, he said, was out of an abundance of caution.

The 35-year-old reliever received the largest free agent contract doled out by general manager Mike Elias since Elias’ arrival in Baltimore in 2018. Kimbrel earned an All-Star nomination last year with the Philadelphia Phillies, with whom he posted a 3.26 ERA. Kimbrel is expected to anchor the bullpen in Baltimore.

“I’m just coming in to do what I’ve always done, and to answer questions and to try to make everyone better around me and try to make everyone around me make me better,” Kimbrel said last week. “That’s part of the give and take of this game. I’ve played this game for a long time, but I don’t know everything.”

Elsewhere, infielder Gunnar Henderson is expected to make his Grapefruit League debut this week after dealing with left oblique aggravation early in camp. And first baseman-turned-pitcher Ronald Guzmán arrived in camp Sunday after experiencing visa issues.

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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