SEATTLE — Yennier Cano had been an afterthought. He had been, to some on the outside at least, a venture tried and failed. The right-hander pitched just 4 1/3 innings for the Orioles last year and allowed nine runs, and he left spring training this year as a minor leaguer.
Cano is no longer an afterthought.
He hasn’t been one for many months in Baltimore, since he arrived midway through April and almost immediately inherited a high-leverage role. That role is firmly his now for the Orioles, serving as one half of a dynamic late-inning bullpen duo.
And now Cano is no longer an afterthought on the national stage, not after he worked a scoreless sixth inning for the American League in Tuesday’s All-Star Game. In the early stages of Cano’s journey here — and it’s been quite a journey — his usual confidence on the mound became muted. He was a newcomer in America, and that type of flair wasn’t always welcome on a minor league baseball field.
But before he took the mound Tuesday, some of his Cuban compatriots on the All-Star roster told him not to hold back anything.
Cano earned his place here. He also earned his moment to straddle the rubber, arms out by his sides, staring down whichever batter just discovered who Cano is and why he’s so difficult to hit.
“Man, don’t even look at this guy after he strikes you out, cause it’s scary” Cano remembered Randy Arozarena, Luis Robert Jr. and Adolis García told other All-Stars. “That guy’s big as heck. Don’t even look at him. Walk away.”
Matt Olson and Nick Castellanos took that advice. Cano struck them out to begin the sixth inning, and he didn’t shy away from his strikeout pose on a national stage. That’s what got him here. So he posed, stared and then received a new baseball from catcher Adley Rutschman, his usual battery mate with the Orioles who joined him as a first-time All-Star.
Cano’s roundabout journey began in Cuba, where he never really dreamt of playing in an All-Star Game because of the far-fetched nature of that idea. He was barred from playing baseball for a year by the government when he later asked permission to follow baseball abroad, eventually made it to Argentina, then America, then to Baltimore.
There were missteps along the way. But at 29, Cano recovered his footing and then surged ahead, making up for lost time by bursting onto the scene this year. For each of the Orioles’ four All-Stars, this is a unique and special honor. But perhaps it’s even more so for Cano, considering baseball was taken from him entirely by the Cuban government for a year.
Everything since — every success, every failure — has been so radical that it would be a stretch to even call it a dream. “Unreal” is the word Cano settled on.
“It still is crazy to me,” Cano said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “I still couldn’t sleep last night thinking about the fact that I’m here.”
When Cano finished his scoreless inning, Rutschman met him near the first-base line and gave him a hug, just as he always does in Baltimore. Outfielder Austin Hays watched on, having already completed his five innings of starting duty in center field with a hit to his name. Right-hander Félix Bautista pitched part of the eighth inning and watched a two-run home run from Elías Díaz against his usually dominant sinker.
They were here together, four Orioles representing their surging team. The results were varied, but that didn’t matter as much as being here.
All-Stars. That can’t be taken away.
“It’s one of those moments where the result doesn’t really matter,” Rutschman said. “The fact that you’re out there, you made it to this point, you’re here together, you get to share it together, it was fun doing it.”
On Monday night, Rutschman was a star in the Home Run Derby. By Tuesday, Rutschman, Bautista, Cano and Hays strode down the red carpet at Pike Place Market in Downtown Seattle. They shared this with their kids, spouses, parents and each other. They created memories from what could, realistically, be a once-in-a-lifetime handful of days.
Hays took advantage of that time to collect autographs from some of the best players in the world, including two-way star Shohei Ohtani — players he suddenly shared a clubhouse with. Asked whether those autographs were for his young children to remember this all by one day, Hays laughed.
“They’re for me; I’m pretty excited,” Hays said. “I’m not that old, either, you know. There’s still a lot of guys in there, it’s cool to see their name on different stuff.”
Hays shared this whole week with his family. The matching clothing he and his sons wore for the red carpet event will need to go straight to the dry cleaner as a result of a strawberry jam accident, but that’s only another funny memory to remember this all by.
Bautista wishes he could have his one pitch back, because it gave the National League a lead to hold onto for a 3-2 win. But when he looks back on all of this, he’ll think more of the time spent with his teammates and how winding this path was to reach his first All-Star Game. Bautista spent six years in Baltimore’s farm system before he arrived in 2022 as a high-leverage reliever.
“It’s been an incredible first half that we’ve both put together thanks to a lot of hard work,” Bautista said through Quinones of he and Cano. “We’re really thankful for that. And now going forward, we’re going to put in a lot more work to try to do a lot more good things to try to win a lot more ballgames this second half.”
Bautista was the first to shift his mind toward the remainder of this season. This was all a joy, a deserved moment for each of them to be recognized for what they, and Baltimore, have achieved through 89 games.
They’ll have all that waiting for them come Friday.
For now, at least, they can still cherish the time spent in Seattle at their first All-Star Game. There’s no taking that distinction away from them.