Orioles pitchers will be subjected to the usual drills in spring training, whether it’s pop-ups, bunts or rundowns. They’re going to throw on flat ground and off mounds, including one that has strings running across it to emphasize command. Certain pitchers will be given instructions tailored to their needs, others may take the initiative and do a little experimenting.
Left-hander Donnie Hart will attempt to perform a balancing act.
Hart will report to the Ed Smith Stadium complex feeling like he’s got to make the team. A spot in the bullpen won’t be handed to him. He must earn it after appearing in 22 games last season as a rookie.
Results matter for a pitcher with such a limited resume, but the only way to assure greater security is by finding ways to better defend himself. He must tinker, even if it costs him runs.
Left-handers were 5-for-38 with 11 strikeouts against Hart, a .132 average that might suggest that he’s destined for a specialist role. Right-handers were 7-for-24 with one strikeout and the only home run off him, delivered by the Red Sox’s Hanley Ramirez.
Manager Buck Showalter used Hart for two batters or fewer in nine games, but the rookie worked multiple innings on five occasions. Specialist tendencies with the potential for an expanded role.
“One of the things, and I talked to some of the guys in the bullpen about it this year, too, and kind of picked their brains about how they go against opposite-handed hitters themselves, one of the things I wanted to really work on was my slider to righties,” Hart said last week on the “Hot Stove Show” on 105.7 The Fan.
“For the most part, I just defended myself with the fastball and changeup against righties. I really wanted to use my slider against those guys and see what it would do, but I didn’t want to get in the game and be experimenting with a pitch in a big league game against those kinds of hitters. It was one of those things were I kind of had to learn and try to see when other guys used it and how they went about it and what kind of hitters they used it against.
“That’s definitely one of the things I want to work on when I come into spring training and try to refine and get good at it and see if it works. And if it works, that’s awesome. But if not, I’m going to have to pick some more brains and try to figure out what else I can do to make sure that I can defend myself against those right-handed hitters.”
It gives the media and fans something else to track in Sarasota. Check the matchups for Hart and how he fares.
Many springs ago, catcher Chris Hoiles was instructed to call for the changeup on every other pitch from Scott Erickson. The veteran right-hander got shelled and didn’t want to throw it again, but results didn’t matter in this case. Erickson was making the team, no matter the size of his ERA, so a little tinkering wouldn’t hurt him.
I remember interviewing left-hander Matt Riley in Jupiter, Fla., after another poor exhibition start. The kid shrugged it off, saying he was “working on stuff” to get ready for the season - oblivious to how results did matter for him and his next assignment would be in minor league camp.
Hart is closer to Riley than Erickson when it comes to job security based on his limited experience, but he’s also on firmer ground after allowing only one run in 18 1/3 innings and earning Showalter’s trust.
Let the experimentation begin.
“That’s definitely one of the fine lines that you walk whenever you’re trying to make the team and that’s certainly what I’m going into spring training trying to do,” Hart said. “It’s one of those things where you have to be in communication with the pitching coach, the bullpen coach and the manager and let them know what’s going on and what you’re trying to work on and what they see, if they see the same thing. And if they do, that’s good. If not, you’ve got to try to figure out what they’re seeing, as well, and make sure that you can prove that to them.
“That’s a conversation I’m obviously going to have to have when spring training rolls around and we start reporting. I’m looking forward to it.”
Hart made his major league debut on July 17 against the Rays at Tropicana Field and retired both batters he faced after replacing Vance Worley to begin the bottom of the sixth inning. Corey Dickerson flied to right field and Kevin Kiermaier struck out looking.
“It was special for sure,” Hart said. “That’s probably one of the more common questions that I get from people that know me and I tell them every time it’s really hard to put into words. As a little kid, you dream about it and then as you grow up and you get drafted, you realize that you can kind of almost see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s so far away for some of us. And then, finally being able to walk through the clubhouse door and then walk into the stadium to pitch on a big league mound against big league hitters, it was special. That’s for sure.”
The atmosphere was drastically different on Oct. 4 when Showalter summoned Hart into the wild card game against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Melvin Upton Jr. pinch-hit for Michael Saunders with two outs in the seventh inning and flied out on Hart’s seventh pitch, the only batter that the left-hander faced.
“I think the moment that stands out the most to me was when I got to the field,” he said. “I had breakfast with Darren (O’Day). I ran into him in the lobby and he was going at the same time, so we ended up going to eat together. We just had a little conversation about not being too invested in every single pitch. Zach (Britton) and I had the same conversation later on in the day, as well.
“(O’Day) sat down and told me we wouldn’t obviously be here if it wasn’t for everybody that’s on this team right now and the things they did. That kind of eased my mind a little bit, not putting too much more into what the situation really is. That’s probably the biggest thing that stuck out to me. It kind of eased my mind a little bit. But once you get the call down in the bullpen and they say, ‘We need you to get ready and you’re going to face so-and-so,’ or, ‘You’re going to come in in this part of the inning,’ I think your natural competitive instinct kind of kicks in and you rely on that and you just go out and try to do your job.
“That was a really cool experience. That’s probably the loudest stadium I’ve ever had to pitch in for my entire life.”
Hart made the jump from Double-A Bowie and will be reunited with Alan Mills, the former Baysox pitching coach who’s replaced Dom Chiti as bullpen coach. Hart recalls a conversation with Mills that proved to be both humorous and prophetic.
“There was one point earlier in the year where I was sitting down with (Ashur) Tolliver and this was before he got called up, too,” Hart said. “(Mills) sat down and he looked at both of us and just kind of stared at us. Tolliver and I just looked at each other like, ‘What’s going on, Millsy?’ And he goes, ‘Nothing. I just wanted to stop by and see how you guys were doing.’
“We said, ‘Well, we’re doing good. Are you doing all right?’ He goes, ‘Do you guys realize that you’re both big league pitchers?’ And we both just kind of looked at each other and laughed. I think it was a month later that Tolliver got called up to the big leagues. I said, ‘Well, Millsy, you got one of them right.’ And then sure enough, a month later or two months later, I got called up and I made sure that he was one of the first people to know that I was getting called up to the big leagues, because I had him since my rookie year and I’ve had him every year that I’ve been with the Orioles and in pro baseball. He’s a pretty special person to me in my career.”
Hart had a brief phone conversation with new pitching coach Roger McDowell, who reached out to every pitcher on the 40-man roster.
“I talked to him probably about a month ago,” Hart said. “He called me and we just kind of chatted. He told me about himself and who he was, where he grew up and where he’s at now. We talked a little about his family and I kind of did the same thing with him.
“He seems like a really good dude. He seems like he could be a lot of fun to work with. He knows a lot about the game. I’m really looking forward to working with him and then having Mills there, as well, and working with those two.”
Note: The Orioles re-signed minor league infielder Sharlon Schoop, Jonathan’s older brother, according to Baseball America’s free agent tracker.
Outfielder Xavier Avery signed with the Braves.