The duality of Grayson Rodriguez’s season emerged in the sixth inning Monday night, when Orioles manager Brandon Hyde stepped out of the dugout and Rodriguez’s head dropped.
The 23-year-old right-hander had looked as good as ever over the first few innings of his return to the majors. Rodriguez then couldn’t record an out in the sixth, allowing the first three batters he faced to reach base before Hyde pulled him. This has been the story of his his rookie season: He pounded the zone with 100-mph fastballs, but then uncorked a wild pitch in the sixth. His dominance was interrupted by a sudden hiccup, as has been the case in many of his major league outings so far in a young career.
That last part is important context: Rodriguez has only started 11 games for the Orioles. For any rookie — and especially so for a pitcher — the moguls are often most densely packed at the beginning of the slope.
But the dent in Rodriguez’s outing comes after a month and a half with Triple-A Norfolk, where Rodriguez tried to filter out some of that unevenness. He reduced his cutter usage and improved his fastball command. His revised approach showed: Nearly half his pitches were fastballs and his changeup drew five whiffs.
For as solid as Rodriguez appeared early, it devolved into a 6-4 Orioles loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers after right-hander Bryan Baker allowed a grand slam. While Rodriguez allowed four runs in five innings, it still felt like a step, even if the final line score doesn’t look it.
“Felt a little more confident coming into the game tonight,” Rodriguez said. “Obviously, didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. There were some pitches that I want back. But that happens.”
Rodriguez’s return came against a Dodgers lineup that offers the most-seasoned pitchers fits more times than not. To face that in Rodriguez’s first start back in Baltimore was tough timing, but for an Orioles team that had its eight-game winning streak snapped with Monday’s loss, there are no more throwaway games on the schedule. In a race to October, finding ways to win a series is the main priority, and pitching was the main reason Baltimore carried a winning streak into the series opener against Los Angeles.
For the first three innings, Rodriguez blew fastballs by batters, pulled the string on his lethal changeup and used his curveball effectively. He avoided his cutter almost entirely and allowed five hits in five innings before Los Angeles broke through in the sixth.
“Just being able to go back to Norfolk, kind of gather myself and get back to the pitcher that I know I am, and that’s throwing a lot of fastballs,” Rodriguez said.
For the past month and a half, Rodriguez has thought about this night — his return to the major leagues.
He reached this level as a late injury replacement for right-hander Kyle Bradish during the first week of the season, and over his next 10 starts there was a little bit of everything. He twice pitched scoreless outings and allowed two runs or fewer in five of his 10 appearances. In the other five, Rodriguez gave up four or more runs — with a season-high nine in his final start May 26.
Rodriguez showed how amped he was for this early. He reached 101 mph with his fastball, and eight times in the first inning his four-seamer was measured at 99.8 mph or faster (his previous high was 99.3 mph).
“I was excited to be back throwing in front of the fans, especially throwing in Camden Yards again,” Rodriguez said. “The velo is something we’ve been working on, something that has been with me the last couple starts in Norfolk, and that’s something we’re going to try to keep in our pocket.”
Rodriguez faced his first trouble in the fourth inning, when Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman singled to lead off the frame. The ground ball, which snuck past second baseman Adam Frazier, had just a 20% hit probability, according to Statcast. But with Freeman on base, Los Angeles brought him home and placed runners on the corners to threaten further with one out.
Earlier in Rodriguez’s time in the majors, that inning might’ve spiraled. The one run could’ve become multiple. He had a penchant during spring training and the early portion of the 2023 campaign for an outing to unravel the second or third time through an order. But on Monday, Rodriguez retired the side with two ground balls, stranding the runners where they stood.
There were many positives from Rodriguez’s performance, none more important than showing he could reset and push deeper into the game.
“Thought the command has improved, thought the stuff was excellent,” Hyde said. “Just had a tough time there in the sixth, but besides that, I thought he threw the ball really, really well. Really excited about him.”
He retired the Dodgers in order in the fifth inning, then couldn’t record an out in the sixth. Freeman’s triple led off the inning when center fielder Aaron Hicks couldn’t corral the ball on a leaping attempt at the fence, and catcher Will Smith plated Freeman with a single. Once Rodriguez walked Max Muncy, his night was over.
Rodriguez exited with a lead. Shortstop Gunnar Henderson tripled in the second inning to drive in the third run, and catcher Adley Rutschman lashed a solo homer that just sneaked over the fence in right field.
But when Baker inherited those two runners, he soon allowed the game to turn on its head. He walked Jason Heyward after reaching an 0-2 count. And then with bases loaded, two outs and another 0-2 count, Baker’s fastball saw just enough of the zone for Chris Taylor to blast a game-altering grand slam.
“Being one strike away from getting out of it in general for that long, not being able to execute, yeah, it’s tough,” Baker said.
Had that relief appearance gone differently, Rodriguez’s outing would be looked at in a different light. A play by Frazier or Hicks alters the outing greatly as well. Instead, it’s the ending rather than the start that stands in starker view, leaving Rodriguez with another uneven game upon his return and pushing the Dodgers to a series-opening win at Camden Yards.