‘It was mentally exhausting’: Inside the road back to the majors for Orioles’ DL Hall

Published 8/27/2023 2:41 p.m. EDT, Updated 8/27/2023 3:09 p.m. EDT

DL Hall sat on a Sarasota, Florida, beach as the sun set and tried, as he did every night, not to let his mind wander.

For six weeks, from mid-June to late July, this was his evening routine, anything to keep him from having to stare at the white walls in his hotel room any longer than he had to.

This was not how he pictured his summer going. He thought — and expected — to be back in the major leagues after getting a taste of that success a year ago. Instead, he was alone on the sand, attempting to stay positive as he reminded himself of the bigger picture.

It was his decision to go to Sarasota, to cut himself off midyear in hopes of making it back before the end of the year. He had a back injury last offseason, and, although healed by the time the season came around, he wasn’t anywhere close to having his strength back. He was averaging 92 to 93 miles per hour when just a year ago he could throw 96 to 97.

“It was mentally exhausting,” he told The Baltimore Banner.

He hit his breaking point June 14. That night, after giving up two runs in three innings with Triple-A Norfolk, he gathered team officials. He told them he wanted to go to the Orioles’ complex in Florida, that it would be the smart decision to stop pitching in order to focus on getting his strength back, something he couldn’t do while pitching in games. They agreed.

It was an unusual choice to take their top pitching prospect and a key depth piece out of commission as the Orioles chased their first playoff bid since 2016. But on Saturday it was clear the decision had paid off. Hall was called back up to the majors and pitched a scoreless eighth inning.

With Félix Bautista sidelined with an ulnar collateral ligament injury, Hall will take on a key bullpen role for the Orioles.

“It was obviously an unreal feeling to be back up here,” Hall said. “It’s been a long year for me. I’m just happy to be here.”

Those days in Sarasota for Hall largely resembled a typical spring training regimen. He arrived at the stadium at 7:30 a.m. every day, then got started on his workout. He played catch to keep his arm loose but didn’t throw bullpens at first. The real work was done on the field, where he conditioned with sprints to get his stamina back, and in the weight room, where the focus was on exercises that would make him more explosive.

He slowly started to feel like himself again. After two weeks he started to throw bullpens again, his velocity creeping up as his strength increased.

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“I started off so far behind because of my back that I literally didn’t have a spring training,” Hall said. “For me, that was my spring training. It sucks it had to happen so late in the year, but some things don’t work out as you plan for them to work out.”

This time, though, unlike in February and March, he had to train alone. There were other players around, but his support system, the guys he came up with through the minors, was off playing. Hall kept up with the team but found it hard to watch every game. He talked with Kathryn Rowe, the Orioles’ minor league mental skills coordinator, and leaned on friends the best he could.

Going to the beach and playing video games became his respite, distractions that helped him from thinking about what he was missing. He knew going to Sarasota was the right decision, but it didn’t make it any easier to know he could be living out his dream.

“It’s definitely been a huge challenge mentally, probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in my career,” he said. “It seems like, I don’t want to say wasted, but I missed a lot of this year.”

Hall returned to Norfolk at the end of July, spending a month there before he got the call Saturday to come to Baltimore. He instantly found comfort in Grayson Rodriguez, one of his closest friends in the organization, and others he knew well from the minors.

When it came time to pitch on Saturday night, he felt prepared. He doesn’t know how long, or what role, he’ll play with the team moving forward. But he can find comfort in knowing that his decision had paid off.

“I worked my tail off just to be able to get back here,” he said. “I think it definitely taught me a lot about perseverance and not giving in. Now I’m here at a really crucial part. I think it’s a blessing and I’m just looking forward to helping.”