SARASOTA, Fla. – The Orioles are back on the road this morning, with their buses heading down I-75 south to the Twins’ complex in Fort Myers. Turn right off the Daniels Parkway exit. A left puts you on the Red Sox’s spring turf.
A helpful tip for you tourists.
Grayson Rodriguez makes his second start after registering two scoreless innings against the Tigers in Lakeland and tossing 99 mph bowling balls.
An ample amount of fuss has been made over Rodriguez, the precise level we anticipated, and he deserves. He comes as advertised. The hype is warranted.
But what about players in camp who are exceeding it? Guys who didn’t create any buzz before it opened or have pumped up the volume?
Here are three to get us started today:
Pitcher Nolan Hoffman
The Orioles chose Hoffman in the Triple-A phase of the 2021 Rule 5 draft. They also selected reliever Cole Uvila and traded for Tommy Wilson – the latter not throwing a single pitch in the farm system last year.
Hoffman isn’t a camp invite but he’s a side arming steady presence. He’s made numerous trips and appearances on the extras list, and he leads the club with two saves.
Manager Brandon Hyde used him twice to get the final out in an inning that a reliever couldn’t complete, and he recorded two strikeouts – the first against Javier Baez in the fifth and the next leaving the bases loaded in Lakeland and sending everyone home. He was handed the ball in the ninth inning Sunday at Tropicana Field, tasked with protecting a 5-2 lead, and struck out two batters and stranded two.
“I thought he was aggressive in the zone throughout the inning,” Hyde said afterward in his media scrum. “That's obviously a way different look, kind of a (Ryan) Thompson from their standpoint. Good slider again, tough fastball to hit just because the angle is so different.
“It kind of worked out that we had an inning there where we had a couple of guys we were going to use and possibly be ready for tomorrow or do some back field stuff, but if we need an inning again, he'd be a guy we'd bring back over again."
Hoffman, 25, had a 4.24 ERA last season in 18 appearances with Double-A Bowie. He was sent to the Arizona Fall League and allowed five runs with two walks and 17 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings.
“I’ve never pitched in a major league stadium before, not even for like a camp or anything,” Hoffman said during his own media scrum. “So, all day I’ve just been super grateful and saying to myself how cool it is.”
The Orioles mapped out a plan for Hoffman in St. Petersburg. Give him the ninth inning.
He wasn’t in on it.
“They definitely just kind of sprang it on me,” he said, “but that’s fun.”
So is the reaction of a young pitcher who didn’t think he’d become a big deal on the major league side.
First baseman Lewin Díaz
Finally, Díaz is getting some notice for what he does on the field rather than the waiver wire.
Díaz is 5-for-10 with two doubles, a home run and five RBIs. He contributed a run-scoring single Sunday against the Rays.
The Orioles would like a left-handed hitter to back up Ryan Mountcastle at first base, and the defensive tools might nudge Díaz ahead of his non-roster competitors.
"Great defender,” Hyde said. “I'm really impressed with how he plays defense at first base. Really handsy swing. Nice to see a hit. He started off in camp really early with a ton of hard-hit balls, nice to see him get a hit today. Going to give him opportunities because it's really interesting. The way he can play defense is extraordinary."
Anthony Santander played first base yesterday before leaving for the World Baseball Classic. He’s likely to get starts at first, and especially if none of the non-roster guys come north. Terrin Vavra, Adley Rutschman and James McCann also are in the mix.
Díaz gets points here just for sticking with one team and putting the winter whirlwind behind him.
First baseman/outfielder Ryan O’Hearn
As long as we’re talking about Mountcastle backup options, there’s also O’Hearn, who hit a three-run walk-off home run yesterday.
Phillies center fielder Johan Rojas leaped at the fence, came down and offered no clue as to whether he caught the ball. O’Hearn slowed at second base, then twirled his right hand to signal home run.
Somebody had to do it.
O’Hearn, who was acquired from the Royals, designated for assignment two days later and outrighted, is 7-for-13 with a double and home run. Unlike Díaz, he also plays the corner outfield.
Just like Díaz, he’s forcing people to take notice.
“He’s taking good at-bats every time he’s out there,” Hyde said. “Hitting the ball hard to all fields, playing really good defense. He’s off to a really good start in this camp.”
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