CLEVELAND – The Hall of Fame pitcher leaned over the dugout railing this afternoon to shake hands with the 21-year-old infielder preparing to make his major league debut.
A link to the Orioles’ glorious past meeting baseball’s No. 1 prospect and a huge cog in the rebuild that is designed to move them back into contention.
Jim Palmer headed up to the MASN broadcast booth. Gunnar Henderson took batting practice, started at third base and dived into the next phase of his professional life.
Of course, he landed on his feet, and used them to circle the bases on his first major league hit.
Henderson launched a 429-foot home run to right-center field off Tristen McKenzie leading off the top of the fourth inning, deepening a lead that evolved into a 4-0 victory over the Guardians at Progressive Field.
A slider from McKenzie didn’t stand a chance with Henderson, the ball leaving his bat at 107.1 mph, and the helmet leaving his head before he got out of the box.
Adley Rutschman waited on the top step of the dugout to put the home run chain around Henderson’s neck and hug him. His large cheering section erupted, hugs and high-fives also visible in the stands. And manager Brandon Hyde’s quest to temper the expectations for Henderson were sabotaged.
“I think we need to get him a chin strap or some Velcro or something," Hyde quipped. "What a cool moment that was, and so happy for him and his family. To be able to go deep in your first major league game, it’s really, really special. It was a hit we needed, too, big-time, and he played extremely well tonight.
“Two strikes, and that ball was hit. It was loud and it was a no-doubter off the bat. Our dugout exploded. I don’t think the helmet made it out of the batter’s box. Good for him.”
"It was a pretty special feeling being able to do that for my first hit," Henderson said, "and being able to see all the guys around the dugout was pretty awesome."
Rutschman locked eyes with Henderson and congratulated his friend.
"It was kind of a surreal moment because I've been able to come up kind of through the minor leagues with him and watch his career," said Henderson, selected one round after Rutschman in 2019. "Being able to do that up here with him is pretty awesome."
Jordan Lyles tossed 6 2/3 scoreless innings on 96 pitches, Ramón Urías hit a two-run homer in the eighth, and the Orioles evened the series and improved to 68-61. They went 17-10 this month.
Ryan Mountcastle led off the second inning with a single that snapped an 0-for-15 streak. Henderson took two strikes and lifted a fly ball into the left field corner, where rookie Steven Kwan made the catch in foul territory and started a 7-6-3 double play.
Mountcastle couldn’t get back to first base in time. Henderson couldn’t believe how his first at-bat ended.
"That was a first one for me," Henderson said. "Catch a ball off the wall and throw it all the way back to first. That's pretty good."
Next came the home run, a ground ball to the mound, a single into right field leading off the ninth that concluded a seven-pitch at-bat and again cost him the helmet, the delayed goggles gesture toward the dugout, and the media cluster that would be waiting at his locker.
"I'm looking forward to being able to sit on the sidelines and in the dugout and see what kind of player he is," Lyles said. "For me tonight, he helped us win a ballgame getting on the board, and looking forward to what he has in store."
Teammates doused Henderson with a variety of products in the shower.
"Just dumped a bunch of stuff on me," he said after cleaning up, the orange championship belt draped on his chair. "I'm going to leave it at that."
A late return to the clubhouse caused Henderson to miss the beginning of the speech that was part of his championship belt presentation. He was asked to speak.
"I told them, 'Thank you for letting me come out here and do this,' " he said. "Not very good at being on the spot with a speech."
Henderson said he wasn't nervous during the game, perhaps because he got only 45 minutes of sleep last night. The senses were dulled.
"I just went out there and was myself and felt like it was a pretty good day," he said.
Henderson tried to pick out his family in the stands, but he couldn't locate them.
"Tried to look for cameras around them, but didn't end up finding them," he said. "But I heard them when I was up in the box."
Someone retrieved the home run ball for Henderson, and it's going in his trophy case.
"After my first at-bat I felt like I had some confidence going into the next one," he said. "I saw pitches very well and luckily enough was able to catch one right, so that was pretty awesome."
The commitment to claiming a wild card spot, questioned at the trade deadline but later emphasized by executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias in meetings with a handful of players, led to the arrivals today of Henderson and left-hander DL Hall.
Henderson is going to get regular playing time. Hall’s electric arm will be plugged into the bullpen on Thursday. Power-hitting first baseman Jesús Aguilar, signed to a minor league deal, also will hop off the taxi squad and provide a bat for the bench and a backup for Mountcastle.
“I think we’ve shown that, I think we’ve shown what this team is capable of, beating a lot of really good teams of late,” Hyde said this afternoon. “Now we just added Gunnar and Aguilar and DL in September, also, and we’re excited about that. Added talent to our team and, you never know.”
More prospects are on their way. This is just the current wave.
"It's awesome because I was there one time," Lyles said. "I know how much it means to each and every one who's able to put on a major league uniform for the first time, and then for him, fortunate enough that he had success right away in his first game. ... For the whole season we've had a lot of talented guys come up and show the fruits of this organization's labor. There's a lot of talent, one of the best farm systems for a reason, and I'm very fortunate and lucky to be able to watch it here later in the season at the major league level."
Hyde has wanted better at-bats from his club, and it worked McKenzie for 23 pitches in the first inning and 64 through the third. Cedric Mullins and Urías each struck out on nine pitches in the first. Anthony Santander drew a 10-pitch walk to load the bases in the third, and Urías walked on four to give the Orioles a 1-0 lead.
Mountcastle fell behind 0-2 and lined out to center field.
The Orioles got rid of McKenzie after five innings and 97 pitches, his shortest outing since June 22 in Minnesota. Lyles kept the lead intact in the fifth by stranding Amed Rosario after a two-out single, with José Ramírez flying to the edge of the track in right field.
Lyles bent at the waist and watched Santander track the ball, then straightened and exhaled. He got a double play in the seventh after Richie Palacios’ leadoff single, pumped his fist and came out of the game with only four hits allowed.
Urías’ 15th home run, off Eli Morgan, represented the first earned runs allowed by Cleveland’s bullpen in 32 1/3 innings. It came after Rutschman drew his 46th walk in 81 games.
The night wasn’t just about Henderson’s bat, though it tends to hog the spotlight. He caught two popups in the third, started a double play in the fourth after the first two batters reached, and fielded Luke Maile’s bouncer with the bases loaded and ran to the bag for the force.
Henderson caught a popup in foul territory to open the sixth, handled a ground ball to end it, and Lyles was barreling toward his 11th quality start.
“He did a nice job defensively," Hyde said. "I’m sure it’s a sigh of relief for him. I’m sure he’s still got a ton of energy right now. I think I just heard the clubhouse erupt when he walked in. Everybody’s happy for him.”
Cionel Pérez registered the final out in the seventh, on another ground ball to Henderson, and tossed a scoreless eighth. Félix Bautista retired the Guardians in order in the ninth, with Mountcastle making another diving stop to record an out, and the Orioles secured their 12th shutout.
Lyles earned his 10th win and also recorded his 1,000th career strikeout, the 46th active pitcher to reach the mark.
“Unbelievable. Once again, just a pro start," Hyde said. "Pitched out of traffic, made big pitches when he needed. A lot of left-handers in that lineup, navigated nicely. Went into the seventh inning, probably could have finished it. Just an outstanding start.”
Henderson, the youngest player to debut in the majors this season, will be in Thursday’s lineup against former Cy Young winner Shane Bieber. He’ll try to reach the seats again, and maybe reach for his helmet before it flies off his head after tonight’s unsuccessful attempts.
"Every time I swing it comes off," he said. "We tried them all and that was the closest one. I guess I've got too much hair going on."
The flow looked glorious as Henderson circled the bases, just like a past that the Orioles are sure can be duplicated.
Notes: The Orioles are starting Dean Kremer, Austin Voth and Spenser Watkins in the three-game series against the Athletics at Camden Yards. Oakland hasn’t announced its starters.
Triple-A Norfolk’s Mike Baumann struck out 13 batters and walked none in six innings. He allowed four hits and an unearned run. Jordan Westburg hit his 13th home run.
Double-A Bowie’s Cade Povich, acquired from the Twins in the Jorge López trade, allowed one run and three hits and struck out six batters in six innings. Hudson Haskin hit his 14th home run and Toby Welk belted his fourth. Zach Watson drove in six runs. Cody Roberts had four hits, and Welk, Coby Mayo and César Prieto had three.
Dylan Beavers had hits in his first three at-bats for Single-A Delmarva, with two RBIs.