CHICAGO — The Grayson Rodriguez of the first inning and the Rodriguez of innings two, three, four and five were as far apart from each other as could be. But in the end, when Rodriguez left the mound at Guaranteed Rate Field, those four quality innings will mean more to his present and future than the blemish of the first.
It has been this way for Rodriguez early in his time with the Orioles. There was the first inning against the Texas Rangers, the fifth inning against the Oakland Athletics, and then, once more, the first inning Sunday against the Chicago White Sox.
Those three innings account for nine of the 11 runs against Rodriguez this season.
And then his other 11 1/3 innings have included two runs, 18 strikeouts and one walk — an overwhelming counterpoint in bulk to fears that Baltimore’s top pitching prospect isn’t ready for this level.
The 23-year-old is still learning, of course, and the four runs that crossed against him to begin Sunday’s 8-4 win against the White Sox were a heavy reminder of it. But there’s nowhere else to learn than here in the majors, and if nothing else Rodriguez discovered how to reset, steady his heartbeat and bounce back to resurrect his third major league start.
“We just need a little bit more of that,” Rodriguez said. “Starting the game off, a little better pace is something we’re going to work on this week before the next start. We’re going to prepare a little differently. And ultimately, just eliminating that inning in the starts from here on out.”
With a two-hour, 22-minute rain delay, Rodriguez’s warmup was altered compared to what it normally would be. Then he took the mound and walked the leadoff batter, allowed a single and watched a three-run homer fly off Gavin Sheets’ bat before he’d recorded an out.
Two batters later, Kyle Burger took a fastball the opposite way for a solo homer, establishing a four-run lead. But those four runs would be the only against Rodriguez, and he retired 13 of the final 17 batters he faced after that long ball.
“I’m so happy with how he settled in,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Giving up four in the first, it could’ve really unraveled on him. And I thought he did a great job, him and [catcher] Adley [Rutschman] both, making some adjustments after that first inning.”
The story transfers to his other two starts, with a 34% strikeout rate after the first inning. Rodriguez improves over the course of the game, just as he did Sunday in Baltimore’s comeback win. When he exited after 93 pitches, Rodriguez struck out seven of his eight batters in the final four frames he pitched.
Rodriguez’s changeup, especially, proved nearly un-hittable. Six of his eight punchouts came via that pitch, which averaged a full mile per hour slower than during his first two outings — making it even more deceptive when compared to his high-90s fastball.
“The changeup’s something that helps me out a lot,” Rodriguez said. “That was the first time I felt like I had it today, this year. In the spring we were working on it. These first couple starts, doing the same thing. This week during the bullpen and catch-play, it was something I really focused on, just to kind of get back to how I was throwing it in 2019, in ‘21 and last year. It was big for me just to get that confidence back.”
Rodriguez also utilized his cutter more than the 2.7% he threw that pitch in his previous two outings, although many of them registered as sliders on Statcast. It offered an alternative to his four-seam fastball, and Rodriguez credited Rutschman with the idea to introduce it more in his pitch mix.
In his first three starts, Rodriguez has faced two of the best pitchers in baseball and left both with toe-to-toe line scores. In his debut, he lost to Jacob deGrom but gave up only one more earned run. On Sunday, it was right-hander Dylan Cease on the bump against Rodriguez, and yet Cease left the mound with four runs (two earned) against him.
Baltimore’s batting order jumped on Cease in the fourth, when Jorge Mateo drove in a run with a sacrifice fly and Cedric Mullins plated two more with his first triple this year. Another run scored on Cease’s sixth-inning wild pitch to tie the game at four, and then a three-run eighth inning with RBIs from Mullins, Ryan Mountcastle and Anthony Santander sealed the Orioles’ second series win of the year on the road.
“I think the offense being able to back him [Rodriguez] up right there, putting together a few runs, made him even more comfortable going into the deeper innings,” said Mullins, who finished with three hits and four RBIs. “He looked really good out there.”
It was an offensive display that covered for Rodriguez’s four-run first inning, and it featured a far better success rate with runners in scoring position than Saturday’s narrow loss. The comeback was made possible, though, because how Rodriguez recovered to throw four strong innings.
To make any snap judgements on Rodriguez based on three innings — three innings out of only 14 1/3 in the major leagues — would be to focus on the few clouds in a clear sky. It may have rained off and on in South Side, Chicago on Sunday, but Rodriguez’s start on the whole was a ray of light.