DETROIT — This is who Grayson Rodriguez always projected to be, and who he was for so long at the minor league level. The devastating changeups, diving curveballs and high-90s fastballs were just waiting to all click at once in the major leagues, and in the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader they didn’t just click.
They snapped into Adley Rutschman’s glove. They deceived the bats of nine Detroit Tigers hitters. For five innings, they displayed the dominant nature of Rodriguez, showing all the hype in the world for one of baseball’s top pitching prospects wasn’t outlandish.
It was Rodriguez at his best, a performance deserving of his first major league win.
His presence for Baltimore in Saturday’s 6-4 victory against the Tigers at Comerica Park was captivating, including a stretch of 14 straight batters retired. Rodriguez struck out a career-high nine Tigers, and he did so with seven punchouts in the span of eight hitters.
The allure of the changeup proved folly for another lineup, with six of Rodriguez’s strikeouts coming on that pitch. And of the 13 times Detroit hitters swung at the changeup, they whiffed eight times.
“Oh man,” shortstop Jorge Mateo said in English before switching to Spanish with team interpreter Brandon Quinones translating. “He was super. He was great. He basically struck everyone out. But we know that’s what he’s capable of doing, so we’re really excited to have him here.”
Rodriguez needed an extended shower before meeting with members of the media at his locker. He wouldn’t delve too much into details of the celebration for his first major league win, but he divulged that it included ample ketchup and mustard.
“I think I’ll be getting it out for a few days,” Rodriguez added.
After throwing five scoreless, Rodriguez hasn’t allowed a run for 14 straight innings, dating back to a four-run first inning against the Chicago White Sox on April 16. And by overpowering the Tigers, Rodriguez continued to show that no matter the circumstances of his promotion to the major leagues — joining the Orioles (18-9) after Kyle Bradish landed on the injured list — he deserves a place in this rotation.
Rodriguez didn’t make the Orioles rotation out of spring training after giving up 12 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings. The Orioles thought Rodriguez still had more to learn in the minors. They wanted to see Rodriguez avoid some of the crooked-number innings, to work deeper into games.
But for a pitcher who struck out nearly 37% of the batters he faced in the minor leagues in 2022, the next step of his learning had to be here, in the majors.
“I just think every start is a new experience,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He’s going to learn along the way, but he’s got great stuff, and he showed it today.”
When asked in which ways he has grown through his first month as a major league starter, Rodriguez said he isn’t leaving as many balls over the heart of the plate. Those heaters could blow past a minor league bat; with the wrong location, they get hit hard in the majors.
A week ago, in another start against the Tigers, Rodriguez didn’t have command of his off-speed pitches. He still worked five scoreless innings. The week before that, Rodriguez almost didn’t make it out of the first inning against the White Sox before pitching four scoreless.
Those were learning opportunities. And there will be more learning opportunities as the 23-year-old continues his rookie year. But there will also be these flashes of control that reinforce the promise around the Nacogdoches, Texas, native, and he was backed by an offense that strung together five singles in the second inning to score four runs.
“We were proud of that effort, that we were able to put those at-bats together,” said Mateo, who led off the inning with the first base knock to raise his average to .353.
The Orioles tacked on more with a two-run homer from Ryan McKenna, which gave breathing room to withstand a four-run sixth inning for the Tigers. They did that damage off left-hander Keegan Akin and right-hander Mike Baumann, after Baumann came in with inherited runners and gave up a long ball to former Oriole Tyler Nevin.
But with right-hander Yennier Cano recording three more outs — bringing his season tally to 0-for-28 with a hit batter — and closer Félix Bautista earning the save, Rodriguez was in line for that first major league win.
With the way Rodriguez pitched, it’s the first of many.