Recapping Rodriguez's start in Fort Myers, and more (O's lose 7-6)

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Grayson Rodriguez left his glove on the ground as the crowd reacted today to a line drive hit up the middle of the field. Rodriguez hustled after the ball, threw out the Twins’ Donovan Solano and began flexing his hand. The Orioles dugout began to hyperventilate.

The medical check from manager Brandon Hyde and an athletic trainer kept Rodriguez in the game, and he finished the second inning with back-to-back strikeouts with his changeup. A scary moment but nothing that would prompt executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, sitting behind home plate, to again scan the starting pitching market.

Rodriguez returned for the third as the club intended, but he exited with two outs and his pitch count at 55. He allowed one run, on José Miranda’s leadoff homer to left field in the second, and three hits with two walks and four strikeouts, the last against Carlos Correa.

The Twins loaded the bases in the third and Blaine Knight struck out Solano.

“Hit the palm of my glove, so I was able to get leather on it, ultimately make the play,” Rodriguez said. “Just glad nothing is injured.”

Lots of hard contact against Rodriguez, including a deep fly ball and line drive to center fielder Ryan McKenna in the first, Miranda’s home run on a 96.8 mph fastball, Solano’s liner to the mound and Kyle Farmer’s double down the left field line that followed, Ryan Jeffers’ leadoff double in the third and Max Kepler’s liner to McKenna.

A two-out walk to Miranda in the third again brought Hyde from the dugout, this time to make a pitching change.

“I’d say it was all right, obviously not what I was looking for,” said Rodriguez, who tossed two scoreless innings against the Tigers in his debut. “Could have eliminated some walks, definitely some wasted pitches. Needed to be a little bit more around the zone. I think would have made it a little bit more efficient.”

The Twins came out swinging, bringing an aggressive approach against Rodriguez.

“Throw fastballs in the zone, make them hit it,” Rodriguez said. “Walks will hurt you, so we were really just going to go at them with fastballs.”

Two starts away from Ed Smith Stadium have exposed Rodriguez to opposing lineups with lots of regulars.

“Definitely gets me excited,” he said. “Playing on the road, you get a chance to see their starters and that’s really what I was looking for coming into spring training. Obviously, seeing Correa out there and a few others, it’s pretty fun to go against them.

“Obviously, walks will hurt you. Fastballs down the middle will get you, too, so just attacking them like any other hitter.”

Rodriguez threw 11 pitches in the first, seven of them four-seam fastballs, many approaching 99 mph. Leadoff hitter Joey Gallo struck out looking at a pitch clocked at 98.4 mph.

The changeups that struck out Trevor Larnach and Michael A. Taylor in the second registered at 84.5 and 84.7 mph.

“The changeup was a little off there in the beginning,” Rodriguez said. “As we kept throwing it over the course of the three innings, definitely got a lot better, so I liked where I was at.”

* The Orioles loaded the bases twice against Twins starter Kenta Maeda, who left with two outs in the third inning after Jordan Westburg doubled, Lewin Díaz was hit by a pitch and Colton Cowser walked for the second time. Daz Cameron struck out against Locke St. John.

Ryan McKenna and Kyle Stowers walked with one out in the first inning, and McKenna was thrown out trying to steal third base. Cowser walked with one out in the second, Cameron singled, Connor Norby reached on an infield hit and Maeda balked in a run.

Danny Coulombe filled the bases with one out in the fourth, but he struck out Stowers and Westburg to keep the score tied 1-1. Blayne Enlow loaded the bases with one out in the sixth, walking pinch-hitter Heston Kjerstad to force another pitching change - the eighth Twins walk of the game. Norby led off with a double.

Josh Lester lined a two-run single into right field against Jordan Brink, making him 2-for-13 this spring and giving the Orioles a 3-2 lead. Lester also led off the eighth with a single.

Jackson Holliday pinch-hit for Henderson with two on and two outs in the seventh, and he singled to score Cowser.

Coby Mayo committed a throwing error in the seventh that led to a run, but he smoked a double to left field in the eighth after Lester’s single. Robert Neustrom had a sacrifice fly, and another run scored on a questionable error call on Shayne Fontana’s ground ball to the right side, giving the Orioles a 6-3 lead.

* The Twins moved ahead in the bottom of the fourth against Spenser Watkins. Taylor singled with two outs and scored on Jeffers’ double. Jeffers was thrown out at third, with Henderson making the relay to Westburg.  

Watkins allowed one run and five hits in three innings, with no walks and one strikeout. He threw 50 pitches, 34 for strikes.

A double play ended the fifth inning and a caught stealing closed the sixth.

“I felt great,” he said. “It’s good to finally get some runners on base and get a feel for the tempo, especially with the new time clock and everything. But felt good, felt like all my pitches were working. Of course, it’s spring training, so we’ll go back to the drawing board tomorrow and figure out what we’re working on next week. But everything felt pretty good and good to feel the tempo.”

Watkins worked on his two-seam fastball at Driveline Baseball, and today provided another opportunity to get a feel for it.

“Kind of learning as we go with how new it is, where to throw it, where I can’t throw it,” he said. “The single to Taylor was a little more elevated, gives him a chance to put it in the outfield. If I can stay under barrels, that’s kind of my goal, so we’re just getting ideas for how things work, and it was a great spring training outing.”

Hyde complimented Watkins before the game, saying, “What Spenser did for us last year, it needs to be recognized, because he did a great job of filling a rotation spot for us and really keeping us in every game he started.”

“First off, what an honor for your skipper to say that about you, and thank you to him,” Watkins said. “Coming in, I don’t think there was any sort of sense of, you know, ‘I hope whatever happens happens.’ I want to make this team as much as possible, and hearing something like that makes me want to be a part of it even more, with the group in the clubhouse, the coaching staff, everybody. So, fantastic to hear those words from him and it’s going to push me even harder this year.”

* Ryan O’Hearn stayed back at camp after hitting a three-run walk-off home run yesterday against the Phillies. The ball eluded the leaping attempt of center fielder Johan Rojas, who deked everyone into thinking he might have caught it.

“It was definitely a delayed celebration,” he said today, “but I’ll take a walk-off home run, spring training or not.”

O’Hearn is trying to press the Orioles into making a tough call regarding an extra left-handed bat and backup first baseman. He’s 7-for-13 with a double and home run.

“I think everything I do on the field right now is meaningful because I’m trying to make the team,” he said. “Hit a walk-off homer, have a good day, that always feels good going home. Keep your name in the conversation, stay relevant and all that. But right now the focus is just trying to have a quality at-bat every time I’m up there.

“Right now I feel like I’m just kind of all over everything. My swing feels good, I’m seeing the ball well, feeling dangerous up there, letting it fly. It’s fun. I’m enjoying playing, and whatever happens at the end of this, that’s what it is. Just trying to take every day, enjoy it and then compete my (butt) off when I get a chance.”

O’Hearn pounced on a fastball from Andrew Baker. He was waiting for it and Baker didn’t disappoint.

“He had a good fastball,” O’Hearn said. “The slider, he didn’t throw it for a strike very often, so I was just hunting a heater. I almost clipped him I think two pitches before. He threw it right down the middle, I fouled it straight back, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m on it.’ Didn’t necessarily catch that one flush, kind of hit it up in the air, but it was a good wind day and I got enough of it to send the boys home.”

* Kyle Dowdy allowed two runs in the eighth, and Ofreidy Gómez surrendered two in the ninth in a 7-6 loss. Gómez walked three batters and threw three wild pitches, the last scoring the winning run.

Lester doubled in the ninth to go 3-for-3 with two RBIs and a run scored.

“You look at what he’s done in his career, he’s always hit,” Hyde said. “Good to see him swing the bat the way he did today.”

Hyde said Rodriguez’s “stuff was there.”

“Really good fastball again, great changeups,” Hyde said. “A little tough time with slider and a lot of deep counts. We’ve just got to be able to work a little bit more ahead in the count.

“He’s got great stuff, we’re excited about him. Big things ahead for him.”

Asked about Mayo’s line drive double to left, Hyde smiled and said, “That was loud, that was a 3-iron up the left-center field wall. He’s got some serious, serious power. That ball was squared up.”

The game lasted 3 hours and 10 minutes.

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