SEATTLE — Nick Vespi is somewhat used to this, even if it’s not the most preferable setup. He boarded a flight from Jacksonville, Florida, where Triple-A Norfolk was playing, and after a connection found himself in the visiting clubhouse at T-Mobile Park in Seattle — wearing an Orioles hat.
This has been Vespi’s life for much of the last two years. The left-handed reliever could be classified as a Quad-A player if such a designation existed — that is, a standout minor leaguer who is just on the fringes of being a major league regular.
“It’s tough at times, but it comes with the job,” Vespi said. “Hopefully one day I can stick up here and be an everyday guy, but until then I’ll keep my nose down. I’ll keep working hard and wait for the opportunity.”
For at least the immediate future, Vespi will have that opportunity. He received a call-up Friday and will take a major role as one of two left-handers in a bullpen that recently lost southpaw Danny Coulombe to the 15-day injured list because of left biceps tendinitis. And with left-hander Cole Irvin pulled from the bullpen back into the starting rotation, Vespi will be called upon in major spots.
The 27-year-old’s track record in Triple-A the last two seasons signals he’ll step up to that challenge, and even his limited time in the majors has been quality. But Vespi knows the up-and-down nature of his position. There are no guarantees good outings in Seattle seal a place for him long term.
“He’s done amazing in Triple-A the last two years, and he’s come up here and thrown strikes and competed for us,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “So hopefully he can help us out here.”
Vespi didn’t allow an earned run in 28 2/3 relief innings for the Tides last year, and in 26 1/3 innings for Baltimore he held a 4.10 ERA. He hasn’t received as many opportunities in 2023, returning Friday with nine innings so far for the Orioles. Those nine innings were solid, with three runs scoring in one outing but clean frames in his other four appearances.
He added 1 1/3 scoreless innings in Friday’s blowout loss to the Mariners to extend his scoreless streak in the majors to 6 2/3 frames.
But the hurdle for Vespi has been finding a steady gig in the Orioles bullpen. In the hierarchy of left-handed relievers, Coulombe, Irvin and Cionel Pérez come first.
His chance now comes at the expense of Coulombe, who said his injury isn’t a major concern. Still, he didn’t place a firm timeline on his recovery, and in the meantime that spot could be Vespi’s to hold — at least until left-handers DL Hall and John Means are ready for a place on this pitching staff.
That’s the reality for Vespi.
Coming in as a replacement for Coulombe, in a sense, is a like-for-like swap. They have similar arsenals, with low-90s fastballs and a reliance on movement to get hitters out. For Vespi, it’s his slider; Coulombe’s cutter and sweeper are his main offerings.
“He’s having an incredible season, and I hope he’ll be back soon,” Vespi said of Coulombe. “It’s kind of cool for me to be able to watch him do his thing, because I kind of pitch the same way he does in a lot of ways. So, seeing him have success at this level and in the past, it’s good. And, hopefully, bright future for myself.”
Vespi has grown accustomed to traveling lightly. He never forgets his football, stuffing it in a bag along with his baseball gear for each trip, and he nestled it in his locker Friday afternoon in a new city on the opposite coast.
For however long, Vespi is here. He’s gotten used to this — but he won’t stop hoping for the day he finally sticks.