Another rotation check, Franco’s opening day vow and 4-3 win

The bullpen game today in Sarasota began with veteran changeup artist César Valdez retiring the last seven batters that he faced. He was done for the afternoon and ready to change clothes when Trey Mancini and Maikel Franco hit two-run homers in the bottom of the third inning.

Dillon Tate followed Valdez to the mound and retired only two batters, three other relievers pitched and Adley Rutschman doubled in his first at-bat in the Orioles’ 4-3 win over the Rays.

Now, back to the starters.

The rotation is set for one game - John Means on opening day in Boston. Dean Kremer starts Wednesday night against the Red Sox in Fort Myers and appears to be the choice for the second regular season game, since he’s lined up to do it.

Matt Harvey is lined up for the third game. His schedule has been tweaked, with the veteran right-hander throwing a heavy bullpen session on Wednesday. Left-hander Keegan Akin starts Thursday night against the Pirates (yes, again) in Sarasota.

Asked about Harvey earlier today, manager Brandon Hyde said, “We just pushed him back a couple days. Don’t read anything into it. ... It’s just the way the rotation is kind of being put together.”

Félix Hernández is trying to avoid the injured list and make the club. He left his March 16 start in Port Charlotte with elbow soreness that limited him to one inning, but is cleared to throw a light bullpen session on Wednesday.

“I don’t want to rule anything out,” Hyde said.

“We’ll continue to evaluate him every day. His elbow’s feeling better every day and tomorrow he gets on a mound for a light side and we’ll see how that goes.”

Rutschman was in today’s lineup and went 1-for-3 with a pair of strikeouts. He lined a double into right field in the second inning and was thrown out at the plate on Pat Valaika’s single, sliding late into the catcher but avoiding injury.

No coincidence that he caught during MASN’s first spring telecast, but Hyde offered a few other reasons.

“He’s been working hard. He’s been here, as well as the Twin Lakes camp, and I’m going to try to find some at-bats for him this next nine days,” Hyde said. “Thought it would be a good day to give him a start.”

Maverick Handley replaced Rutschman in the seventh inning.

Franco-Swings-Orange-ST-Sidebar.jpgFranco made his second start with the Orioles and went 1-for-3 with the home run and two strikeouts. He batted fourth, but don’t read much into that, either.

“It’s more about trying to get him some at-bats,” Hyde said. “So get him up in the order and hopefully get him three at-bats and not have him out there too long.”

Franco said afterward that he’ll be ready for opening day.

“No question, man, I think I’m going to be ready,” said Franco, who will serve as the designated hitter in Wednesday’s intrasquad game, get five or six at-bats and return to the lineup the following night.

“At the end of the day, it’s the way you feel, the way you see the ball. I have three games and everything is good so far. I’m seeing the ball really well, that’s the way that I want to be and I think now I’m 100 percent with timing. Tomorrow in an intrasquad here, I’m going to play DH and I’m going to take the most at-bats that I can, and that’s the way that I want to. Try to have more at-bats, I’d like to see more pitches, try to see spin, try to see fastballs. And at the end of the day I’m going to be fine, I’m going to be 100 percent for opening day.”

Is Hyde as confident about Franco’s availability on April 1?

“He played six innings today,” Hyde said. “He hasn’t done any back-to-backs or things like that, so we’re just going to continue to play him and make the decision about him as we get closer.”

Valdez allowed a run in the top of the first inning when three of the first four batters singled. Joey Wendle had the RBI. Francisco Mejia led off with an infield hit.

A line drive double play ended the inning and Valdez retired the side in order in the second and third on three strikeouts and three ground balls.

“I think it went well overall,” Valdez said through interpreter Ramón Alarcón. “It went from maybe not having my best stuff in the very first inning but as the pitches went on and innings went on, I think I was able to make the proper adjustments. My changeup was not as effective the first inning, but after that I felt better and did a good job with it.”

Valdez can be a bulk reliever or closer. He could start if the Orioles run short in the rotation.

“I’m here to help the team, whatever role there is for me,” he said. “Hopefully, I can make the team and be a contributor. If they need an extra umpire, I’m up for it. If they need an extra hitter, I’m up for it. So just want to help the team in whatever role is available.”

Said Hyde: “I think César’s the ultimate team guy and I’m comfortable putting him in any role. So whether it’s as a starter, a middle guy, a closer, whatever it may be, I think he’s up for anything and just wants to contribute. He is a super pro, really enjoy having that guy on the team.”

Franco homered to left field after Mancini drove a pitch over the fence in right. Mancini also singled and is 13-for-38 (.342) with a .350 on-base percentage.

The Rays scored two runs off Tate in the fourth on doubles by Wendle and Ryan Boldt, a single by Tristan Gray and a fielder’s choice grounder. Tate gave up his fourth hit and was gone with his ERA at 11.57. Evan Phillips recorded the last out.

Wendle is a career .316/.364/.421 hitter in 34 games against the Orioles. He also lights up their pitching in spring training.

Conner Greene tossed three scoreless innings with two hits and three strikeouts. Travis Lakins Sr. retired all six batters with two strikeouts.

Earlier today, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias spoke on a Zoom call about the new state-of-the-art training academy in Guerra, D.R., that’s going to begin construction in the coming months. (I wrote about it here.)

“Obviously, this is a long time coming and a major milestone in this organization’s commitment to a full and aggressive and correct approach to acquiring and developing international talent,” Elias said. “Big part of our strategy going forward. It’s a big part of being successful in Major League Baseball today. We want to be at the forefront of doing that and I think this facility with enable that and put our international players in the best position to not only succeed on the field but receive the education, the language education, a cultural education, that is necessary for success in life, even outside of baseball, and that’s a big part of this as well.

“Since I’ve been here, updating the infrastructure of this organization has been priority No. 1, internationally in particular. So for me and our front office, this is a huge milestone, knowing that this was a big checklist item for us. It’s not an easy thing to do. It requires significant investment and I thank our partnership group very dearly for their commitment to this and their willingness to embark on a project like this.

“We have, I think, a first-rate, wonderful spring training complex here in Sarasota, and this will put our Dominican facility right on par with that and really with anything out there.”

Said Koby Perez, the Orioles’ senior director of international scouting: “An academy like this really helps out our process as far as player development and scouting. It’s a state-of-the-art facility which is going to basically parallel what we have in Sarasota. So it gives our players the opportunity to develop in the Dominican Republic as if they were in Sarasota.

“For international scouting, it’s a huge selling point when you have a facility like this. When you talk to parents and agents, obviously they want their player to be in the best hands. And the best facilities.”

You can read more quotes here.

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