WASHINGTON — Yennier Cano had his legs planted shoulder-width apart and arms dangling out from his side, as if preparing for an old-fashioned Western standoff.
His third straight sinker, the pitch that has made him so valuable thus far for the Orioles, had whizzed past the swinging bat of Nationals outfielder Lane Thomas. Cano stared him down, the surest sign yet that his confidence is rapidly rising at the major league level.
For Cano, it’s all about that confidence. When the right-handed reliever pitched in Triple-A, he said, he’d exhibit even more personality after key strikeouts.
“As I get more comfortable, more relaxed,” Cano said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones, “maybe more stuff will start to come out.”
Baltimore may have uncovered another hidden gem in the bullpen, one that took time to polish before breaking out. When the Orioles traded closer Jorge López at last year’s trade deadline, they acquired four pitchers, including a highly ranked left-handed pitching prospect and Cano, who had limited major league experience.
But they saw something in Cano, 29, even after he walked five batters in 4 1/3 innings late last season. He had another opportunity this spring to prove himself, and when the Orioles’ bullpen became taxed with a heavy workload early in the campaign, Cano was the first reliever shuttled from Norfolk to Baltimore.
He’s quickly earned manager Brandon Hyde’s trust and was thrown into the eighth inning of a one-run game at Nationals Park on Tuesday. And for the third straight outing this year, Cano hasn’t allowed a baserunner, reinforcing his rapidly rising stature in the Orioles bullpen.
“He’s throwing bowling balls up there,” Hyde said. “I’m gonna take my chances. That was a quick inning, too. They haven’t taken good swings off him yet, so hopefully he can keep it going for a while.”
Cano’s path to this point has been arduous. The Cuban native arrived in the Minnesota Twins organization when he was 25, pitching in High-A ball. He jumped to the major leagues last year, but between his time with the Twins and Orioles, he combined to allow 23 runs with 16 walks in 18 innings.
Nine of those runs came in his 4 1/3 frames for Baltimore late in the year, but the Orioles kept him on their 40-man roster throughout the offseason and into spring training. That’s where the turnaround began, with improved strike-throwing and more emphasis on his sinker.
Cano threw his sinker 40.1% of the time last season in the major leagues. He coupled that with his changeup (30.2%), slider (27.2%) and an infrequent four-seam fastball. With Baltimore, though, Cano is using his sinker 60% of the time, his slider 31.1% and his changeup just 8.9%.
“I think just coming in with a different mindset,” Cano said. “Last year was my first year in the bigs, so coming in this year with more experience, feeling a lot more comfortable and having that pitch where I feel a lot more comfortable throwing it this year, is making a big difference for me.”
In the spring, Cano’s ERA ballooned on the back of one dismal outing, when he allowed four runs in 2/3 of an innings against the Detroit Tigers during his second appearance. Over his final five outings, however, Cano didn’t allow a run. He became one of the final relief pitchers to be reassigned to minor league camp.
Cano said he waited for his call to Baltimore, hoping for what might be “kind of like a last chance.”
It came last week. And in the time since, Cano’s results are allowing him to show more personality on the mound — beginning with a post-strikeout stare-down that could blossom into even more.
“You go through the minors, you try to compete, you try to do the best you can to reach this moment, and you come up last year and have a disastrous season, to say the least,” Cano said. “But to be here now, and to be here succeeding, it means a lot to me and I think it has been beneficial for both sides.”