BRADENTON, Fla. — Every phone was up, every radar gun in position, every eye in the stadium glued to the field.

This was Jackson Holliday vs. Paul Skenes. The first overall pick in the 2022 MLB draft vs. the first overall pick in 2023. They’d faced off before, two weeks prior, but this matchup was on national TV, in a stadium of self-described baseball nuts eager to see the next two stars before they reach the majors.

This at-bat on Thursday, in the MLB Spring Breakout game, ended in a strikeout. But the overall message of the event outweighed the outcome of this single moment.

MLB has oftentimes been criticized for not doing enough to market its stars, and this was a chance to change that. This game featured the top prospects in the Pirates and Orioles systems, and it was one of 16 such events happening Thursday through Monday at Florida and Arizona spring training complexes. This series showcases the next generation of talent, getting those prospects in front of a national audience before they reach the major leagues to start building excitement among fans.

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Sure, Holliday and Skenes were the main attractions, and they didn’t disappoint.

“I think he was probably throwing 110,” Holliday said of Skenes (it was 102 mph, but what’s a few extra ticks of velocity?). This game, though, was also a chance for lesser-known players, and those further from the majors, to display their skills. Only six of the players on the Orioles’ 26-man roster were in major league camp, and none was on their 40-man roster.

There was Enrique Bradfield Jr., the Orioles’ first-round pick a year ago, showing off his blazing speed. He laid down a bunt, then sprinted to first base in 3.69 seconds, faster than any time recorded by an Orioles player last season. He also had the lone hit for the Orioles.

Luis Valdez, a shortstop from the Dominican Republic who ended last season in High-A, stole 47 bases in 89 games last year. He showed off his quick burst on Thursday, coming in as a pinch-runner and stealing second, then third, and eventually scoring on a sacrifice fly.

Cade Povich, the Orioles’ second-best pitching prospect, started the game, his first true start of spring training. In an organization in which the position players usually get the spotlight, this was a chance for Povich to show that the Orioles have good arms in the pipeline, too. He pitched three innings, allowing one earned run and striking out four.

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“It didn’t feel like a normal game. I had to remind myself that we’re still in spring training,” said Povich, a non-roster invitee who was reassigned Wednesday. “The event as a whole, the amount of people here, with the challenge system and all that, it had a good real-game vibe to it. A bunch of great players as well.”

Ah, yes, that challenge system. Because this was a prospect game, they played by minor league rules. That includes the ability for pitchers or catchers to challenge a call. In the second inning, Silas Ardoin, who ended last year in Double-A, challenged a called ball. The crowd was all in, debating it among themselves and then booing and cheering when it was overturned.

“I don’t think you can get any closer to the edge than that,” Povich said.

MLB thought of the small details to make this game stand out. Players had their names on the backs of their jerseys — an honor usually reserved for those in major league camp — so fans could recognize them. The game was only seven innings (the Pirates won 3-1) and was over in less than two hours so as not to drag on the action too late.

Fans at home, though, noted that they would have preferred neutral commentators instead of the Pirates crew that broadcast the game. That, and the lack of action, seemed to be the only two kinks, and the latter MLB has little control over.

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MLB has not announced if Spring Breakout will become an annual event. But, for the fans who got to watch future stars and the players who got to showcase their abilities, the first year was a success.

“It’s a neat event. I think they’ll be able to run with it,” Holliday said. “It’s really cool to be able to go out and play with these guys.”

Danielle Allentuck covers the Orioles for The Baltimore Banner. She previously reported on the Rockies for the Denver Gazette and general sports assignments for The New York Times as part of its fellowship program. A Maryland native, Danielle grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from Ithaca College.

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