The competition is playful but also motivating. Who’s the first to surrender an earned run? Who blinks first?
And eventually, who is the first to join the Orioles bullpen for his major league debut.
Nick Vespi, an 18th-round pick in the 2015 draft, made his 10th appearance with Triple-A Norfolk last night and has allowed three unearned runs and six hits in 11 2/3 innings. He's walked two batters and struck out 17, the numbers that jump highest from his stat sheet.
Cole Uvila, chosen from the Rangers organization in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 draft, allowed his first unearned run Thursday night with the automatic runner scoring in the 10th inning. He’s permitted only four hits and struck out 14 batters over 12 innings, but also issued seven walks.
“When it comes to the preparation, they’re both as good as it gets,” said Norfolk pitching coach Justin Ramsey. “They come in with a plan every day and they’re always looking through the notes, the scouting reports. They know where we’re trying to go with the guys. They take pride in knowing how they want to attack them. And obviously, the stuff has played very well.”
Good enough for the majors?
“Both of them have not only the weapons, but the mental capacity to do it,” Ramsey said. “We put them into some interesting situations and neither one has been fazed by it. They understand the task at hand is to go in and attack with what they have, and they’ve done a really good job with that.”
There’s also Tim Naughton, making the climb as a 34th-rounder in 2017.
Naughton struck out the only batter he faced Thursday and has an unmarked ERA in 9 1/3. He’s allowed three hits, walked five and struck out 12 in his first Triple-A exposure, after the Orioles kept using him as an extra in spring training and he responded with 1 2/3 scoreless innings in five games.
“We have a little competition going on right now, and we talk about it,” said Vespi, who recorded his third save last night after two unearned runs scored while the Tides committed two errors on the same play - by first baseman Adley Rutschman and right fielder Kyle Stowers.
“We feed off each other, so it’s awesome. We have a really good bullpen, we’ve got a good group of guys.”
The Orioles are adjusting their ‘pen by claiming Logan Allen on waivers from the Guardians and optioning Travis Lakins Sr. to Norfolk. A fourth left-hander is added, but Vespi waits his turn.
He’s on the radar, for sure.
Vespi gets noticed for more than just his long hair. It’s the four-seam fastball that has a natural cut to it, and he used it in combination with a slider and curveball to toss 2 1/3 scoreless and hitless innings in spring training.
“Having Nick since ’19, seeing him transition from starter to reliever and continue to move up, it’s been a lot of fun to see him hone in his skills, allowing him to throw more strikes consistently with all three of his weapons now,” Ramsey said.
“He’s obviously scrapped the changeup since his starting days are behind him, but that’s only made his focus on his other three weapons that much better.”
Vespi said he’s gotten into a rhythm that seemed to elude him in the past.
“I’m pitching consistently, so that’s one of the biggest things,” he said. “I know last year I kind of fell to the back of the bullpen and was throwing here and there, and this year I’m getting in there two or three times a week, so that’s helped out a lot.”
Which brings us to baseball’s version of the chicken-or-egg debate.
Is Vespi getting steadier work because he’s been effective, or is he effective from getting steadier work?
“I think it’s a little bit of both,” he said.
The outs recorded in spring training came after Vespi was assigned to the Arizona Fall League’s Mesa Solar Sox and posted a 2.51 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings.
“I think it all started when I went over to the fall league, and I brought it over to spring training, and now in the season,” he said. “I think I just kept carrying the torch there.”
The opposing batters are the ones burned.
Vespi, who turns 27 in October, stuck to his usual winter routine of working out at ELEV8 Baseball Academy in Delray Beach, Fla. Refining his pitches, with emphasis on his off-speed stuff, and developing his cutter.
“I actually went there when I was in high school, and I actually work with a lot of high school kids there, too,” he said. “I’m doing a lot of teaching, as well as learning.”
Perhaps coaching is in his future.
“Still not thinking about that,” he said, laughing. “Maybe one day.”
First comes the dream of pitching in the majors, with a team known for its constant shuffling of relievers.
“I look at the box score or watch the Orioles games every chance I get,” he said. “Obviously, I want them to be my teammates one day, so I like to keep track of those guys, and I’ve got a lot of friends up there. I don’t try to play GM or anything, but I like watching those guys and to see what they do well, too, so when I do get the opportunity, I can follow what they did.”