FORT MYERS, Fla. — In reality, there is a difference between the competition right-hander Grayson Rodriguez faced Tuesday at Hammond Stadium and the batters he faced in previous years at minor league ballparks, even if the Orioles prospect acts as if they’re the same.
For the second straight start this spring, Rodriguez rode the bus — allowing him to face lineups laden with veteran major leaguers. Last week, he saw Detroit’s future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera. This week, he faced Minnesota’s Carlos Correa — and struck him out with a 98-mph four-seam fastball.
But Rodriguez’s second start of the spring wasn’t as flawless as the first; he got a taste of what it’s like to misplace a pitch against major league competition: He watched a fastball he threw down the middle of the zone leap off Jose Miranda’s bat for a solo homer. The 23-year-old also walked two batters.
“So far, they’re no different than anyone else I’ve played,” Rodriguez said when asked about facing more seasoned hitters. “Obviously, walks will hurt you. Fastballs down the middle will get you, too. So, just attack them like any other hitter.”
In all, Rodriguez allowed three hits, walked two but still struck out four while allowing just that one run in 2 2/3 innings (Right-hander Blaine Knight entered with bases loaded and got a third out, giving Rodriguez’s line an assist).
At this point, Rodriguez’s stat line during Baltimore’s 7-6 loss to the Twins means less than the overall performance. And his health.
There was an intake of breath around the ballpark when a comebacker off the bat of Donovan Solano struck Rodriguez in the palm of his glove hand, knocking his glove off. The 96.4-mph liner, however, didn’t cause any lasting harm.
Rodriguez finds himself in the middle of a robust competition for a place in the starting rotation come opening day. As one of the top prospects in all of baseball, the Nacogdoches, Texas, native is one of 12 rotation options, although his pedigree — and performances so far — appear to give him somewhat of an inside track.
Before first pitch, manager Brandon Hyde said his main focus was how Rodriguez navigated an outing against a strong lineup, particularly with how his “stuff plays, the shapes of his pitches.” He was less concerned with how the final line score would read in a spring training game, and he came away pleased despite the walks and homer allowed.
“I thought the stuff was there,” Hyde said. “He’s got great stuff. We’re excited about him. He’s gonna have big things ahead for him. Now it’s just about a little bit better command and working ahead in the count.”
Rodriguez faced traffic on the bases in the second and third innings after cruising through the first with a strikeout of Joey Gallo. He allowed a double down the left field line to Kyle Farmer after Miranda’s homer, then struck out consecutive batters to end the inning with fastballs that approached 98 mph.
He allowed a leadoff double in the third and two more walks before Knight ended the bases-loaded threat out of the bullpen.
“Obviously, not what I was looking for,” Rodriguez said. “Could eliminate some walks. Definitely some wasted pitches. Need to be a little bit more around the zone. I think that would have made it a little more efficient.”
The hard-hitting prospects
Jackson Holliday didn’t wait long, once he got his chance.
The 19-year-old, seeing his first pitch Tuesday as a pinch-hitter in the seventh, hit an inside-out line drive to record his first RBI of spring training. It was also Holliday’s third hit of the spring and second straight, having doubled in his first appearance before hitting singles Monday and Tuesday.
He wasn’t alone as a prospect coming through with a key hit.
Coby Mayo lashed a double off the left field wall that left his bat at 111.5 mph — the hardest-hit ball of the day — and Jordan Westburg hit a double at 107.9 mph.
“That was a three iron off the left-center field wall,” Hyde said of Mayo’s hit. “He’s got some serious, serious power. That ball was squared up.”
Another step forward
Left-hander John Means took an important step in his recovery from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery Monday by throwing off a half mound. The Orioles ace threw 20 fastballs at about 50% intensity, he said, and didn’t face any setbacks.
Means will throw off the half mound again Wednesday before stepping onto a full mound for a session Friday.
“You don’t really get that type of rhythm when you’re playing catch that you do on the mound,” Means said. “To feel that rhythm again and flow, it felt like I was playing baseball again.”
Means threw all of eight innings in 2022 before his season was derailed, requiring surgery in April 2022. He will be out until late summer, continuing a slow recovery process.
But throwing off the half mound is at least a step in the right direction.
“I know there’s a lot of frustrating days,” Hyde said. “I know it was probably hard for him last year, to watch us have some success, and him wanting to be a part of it. He was a part of it, but he wanted to be out there, and I’m sure that was difficult. But he’s handled it wonderfully, and he’s been patient with it.”