LAKELAND, Fla. – Before Adley Rutschman crouched behind the plate today and set his first target for Grayson Rodriguez, he needed to give his friend an early lead.
Rutschman hit a long home run to left field, put his gear on and went to work - catching one of baseball’s top pitching prospects, guiding the right-hander through his first spring training start.
The stuff he really enjoys doing. A collaboration that Orioles fans have craved for years.
“Anytime you know he’s back there, you know it’s going to be a good game,” Rodriguez said. “I think he knows me better than myself. I’ve learned in the past not to shake him.”
Rodriguez said something later that should make the rest of the league quiver.
“We worked on some things this offseason and so far into spring training, so right now my stuff’s better than it was last year,” he said.
Better than what produced a 2.62 ERA and 0.991 WHIP last year in 17 starts before the lat strain. Better than what struck out 109 batters in 75 2/3 innings.
“When we get a little bit bigger sample size,” he said, “I can’t wait to use it in a game.”
“I love the confidence and I think he’s always had great stuff,” Rutschman said, “so if he says he’s got better stuff, then I’m really excited.”
Manager Brandon Hyde called it "major league starter stuff."
"Now, it's just about command and seeing more major league hitters," Hyde said after a 10-3 loss. "But really encouraged by his first start."
Rodriguez faced the minimum six batters in his two innings, throwing 21 pitches and heading to the bullpen for additional work. He walked one batter and struck out one, and his fastball hovered near 99 mph.
Leadoff hitter Akil Baddoo was called out on strikes on 98.4 mph sinker, one pitch after taking a 98.9 four-seamer that missed the zone. Spencer Torkelson lined to right field and Javier Báez grounded out. All of it done in 10 pitches.
Austin Meadows drew a four-pitch walk in the second, but Miguel Cabrera grounded into a 4-6-3 double play on a 98.7 mph heater and former Orioles infielder Tyler Nevin grounded out.
“He looked really good,” Rutschman said. “He was able to command his stuff and just do what he does, so it was cool to see him go out there on a big stage and do it.”
Rodriguez was critical of himself for only three first-pitch strikes, “but other than that,” he said, “everything was pretty good.”
“Really just tried to treat it like any other start,” he said. “Tried to spin four-seams in the zone and see how it plays.”
Quite nicely. And so quickly that he simulated a third inning in the bullpen to get his pitch count around 40.
Hyde said before the game that he just wanted Rodriguez to throw strikes and command his pitches.
“He’s obviously got the stuff,” Hyde said. “Now it’s about seeing what he looks like against big league hitters.”
They couldn’t do much against him.
“It was pretty special,” Rodriguez said. “Anytime you see Miguel Cabrera or Javier Báez get in the box, you know you feel a little bit closer to the big leagues. So, it was good seeing other jerseys and just happy to be out there.”
Rodriguez is expected to break camp in the rotation. Kyle Gibson and Cole Irvin are locks in a camp with 12 starting candidates on the 40-man roster.
“Obviously, everybody’s vying for a spot,” Rodriguez said. “I’m just focused on my game, going out the days that I pitch. So, really not worried about everything else that’s going on.”
Kyle Bradish, Irvin and Rodriguez have strung together consecutive two-inning scoreless starts. Gibson takes the mound Friday night.
Rutschman collected hits from both sides of the plate in three innings. His home run off left-hander Matthew Boyd came after Ryan McKenna singled and was picked off. He singled into center field in the third against right-hander Brendan White and walked against right-hander Garrett Hill in the fifth.
The splits spun the other way for Rutschman last year. He batted .174 with a .552 OPS against lefties and .280 with an .889 OPS versus right-handers.
“To be honest, last year was kind of the first year that I’ve had splits opposite of right-handed (pitching) being worse than my left-handed. So, it was kind of an interesting year in that sense,” he said.
“I wanted to make sure that any adjustments I needed to make during the offseason, I made, and so just hoping come into this year strong.”
Spenser Watkins retired all six batters he faced, with two strikeouts in the fourth.
"Spense threw the ball good," Hyde said. "He also punched somebody out with a nice sinker, so not just the fastball-cutter but the nice sinker, as well. His first time out, I thought he did a good job filling up the strike zone."
Joey Krehbiel didn’t get through the fifth and allowed five runs and five hits. Nevin hit a three-run homer and Andre Lipcius also cleared the fence – the fourth home run surrendered by Krehbiel this spring. Opponents have totaled eight runs and eight hits in 1 2/3 innings.
"Just seems like he's missing his spots," Hyde said. "He struggled early in camp last year, also. We're going to keep throwing him out there and tighten his command a little bit."
Terrin Vavra led off the fourth inning with a triple to center field, his sixth hit in 11 spring at-bats, and scored on Kyle Stowers single into right for a 2-0 lead.
Ryan O’Hearn had an RBI double in the sixth, with Detroit’s left and center fielders attempting simultaneous leaping catches and almost colliding. Pinch-runner César Prieto stumbled and fell as he crossed the plate and was face-down on the ground for a few seconds before heading to the dugout.
Rule 5 pick Andrew Politi tossed his second scoreless inning of the spring with two strikeouts. Yennier Canó allowed four runs in the seventh. Parker Meadows, Austin's brother, hit a two-run homer.
Kade Strowd replaced Canó with two outs, allowed a single and walked three batters, giving him seven in two-thirds of an inning - all of them at Joker Marchant Stadium.