Watkins has career highs in innings and Ks in 6-1 win (updated)

Everyone has a story. Spenser Watkins isn’t satisfied with closing the book on his own after a 28-year-old rookie finally reaches the majors. He has more to tell.

Watkins isn’t going anywhere except back to Baltimore in a few days while waiting for his next start. He keeps getting outs and more chances, impressing again tonight in a 6-1 win over the Rays at Tropicana Field.

The Orioles improved to 31-62 overall and 1-7 against the Rays, with Watkins carrying a shutout into the sixth before Randy Arozarena’s two-out RBI double. They’ve won three games in a row for the fifth time this season, the most recent streak June 28-30 in Houston.

The bullpen has tossed 10 1/3 scoreless innings during the streak.

Watkins allowed one run and four hits with two walks and a career-high seven strikeouts in a career-best six innings. He’s logged 16 1/3 innings with the Orioles and surrendered three runs.

Dean Kremer is the only other Orioles pitcher to allow one earned run or fewer in his first three major league starts.

Watkins’ last pitch, with manager Brandon Hyde pushing him to 92, was an elevated 90.7 mph fastball that struck out Joey Wendle. Watkins pumped his fist, shouted and walked off the field.

“His pitch count was down, he was throwing the ball great, that’s the recipe for going back out there for the third time through the order,” Hyde said on his Zoom call. “I thought he was keeping his stuff, he was throwing strikes, he was locating for the most part. We were playing good defense behind him. I didn’t have a couple guys available today, so I was trying to get him to go as long as he possibly could. Once we got that 6-0 lead in the top of the sixth, I wanted him to go as far as possible. He did a nice job finishing that sixth inning and the bullpen guys did a good job after him.”

Austin Hays and Trey Mancini combined for five hits and a walk through the sixth in the first two spots in the order. They conspired to give Watkins an early lead.

Ryan Yarbrough was facing the Orioles for a third time this season and 11th in his career. The first three batters reached against him, starting with Hays’ single on a ball that deflected off Wendle. Mancini singled, Hays scored on Ryan Mountcastle’s bloop double to right field and Anthony Santander lifted a sacrifice fly to center.

The Orioles worked Yarbrough for 32 pitches. He was back on the mound for the top of the second after Watkins disposed of the Rays in 11 and made it through 5 2/3 innings with six runs charged to him.

Pat Valaika had a two-out, two-run single in the sixth and he scored on Kelvin Gutierrez’s single on Yarbrough’s 108th and final pitch. Hays greeted reliever Matt Wisler with an RBI double.

Watkins-Throws-Gray-Sidebar.jpgWatkins retired the side in order on nine pitches in the second. He struck out the first two batters in the third, hit Brandon Lowe with a 91.7 mph four-seamer, walked Ji-Man Choi and retired Yandy Díaz on a fly ball to center on his 24th pitch of the inning.

Arozarena singled in the fourth and Pedro Severino threw him out trying to steal, getting Watkins back in the dugout at 55 pitches. Francisco Mejía, replacing injured catcher Mike Zunino, led off the fifth with a bunt single against the shift, but a fly ball, fielder’s choice grounder and reversed call on a grounder into the shift kept the shutout bid intact - all of it done in 12 pitches.

Austin Meadows walked with two outs in the sixth, plate umpire D.J. Reyburn refusing to give Watkins the high strike, and Arozarena’s deep fly ball to center field cleared Ryan McKenna’s head.

Hyde stuck with Watkins as Cole Sulser warmed and Wendle struck out. Sixty of Watkins’ 92 pitches were strikes.

“I’ve known it was there,” Watkins said. “Over my career, I’ve had my ups and down as any player has, normal ride the wave kind of thing. I just think the ability that I have has always been in there and it’s just been a matter of being able to unlock it this year. And the work we’ve put in with Holty (Chris Holt) and Holmey (Darren Holmes), just the Orioles staff in general, has really allowed me to kind of open that up and give me this opportunity to succeed.

“I’ve learned pretty much entirely who I am as a pitcher. I’ve always kind of had an idea of who I was as a pitcher, but the ability that this staff has had to kind of maximize who I am as a pitcher and really upgrade me, in a sense. I’m still me, but I think there were some upgrades that came along with just working different things and how to maximize my stuff. It’s just been incredible.”

The Orioles had their first back-to-back starts of six or more innings since April 25-26 with John Means and Matt Harvey. Means comes off the injured list Tuesday. Harvey shut out the Royals yesterday over six innings.

“Amazing,” Valaika said. “He pitches with a lot of confidence. Today was amazing. Since he’s gotten here, it’s been impressive what he’s done. He fills up the zone and he’s not afraid at all. I don’t see any of that. I’m really happy for him that he got this opportunity and is making the most of it.”

The Orioles began the day batting .269 against left-handers, the second-highest average in the majors. Their .433 slugging percentage was fifth.

Yarbrough needed only six pitches to retire the side in order in the fourth. Hays and Mancini both had two hits by the fifth, the latter also drawing a walk. But Yarbrough wasn’t surrendering anymore runs until the sixth.

Mancini is 8-for-22 with two doubles, three home runs and eight RBIs lifetime against Yarbrough. He’s 9-for-24 with four home runs and nine RBIs in seven games against the Rays this season.

Santander drew a 12-pitch walk leading off the sixth. The fact that Yarbrough was still in the game after a marathon first was impressive, and perhaps also an indication that the Orioles needed to dial down the aggression.

Ramón Urías followed with a single, his bat refusing to cool. Yarbrough almost escaped the jam, but Valaika’s soft single into center field gave him three RBIs this month and his first multi-RBI game since June 8.

“This whole year has been a grind for me, it’s been tough,” Valaika said. “I’ve got to find a way to get out of it. Show up every day and have a positive mindset and try to let go of the past and really attack the day and have a good mindset every day going in, because I know this year has been tough. It’s a grind, for sure, but today was good that I could help the team a little bit.”

Valaika scored on Gutierrez’s single and Hays doubled inside the right field line for his third hit and a 6-0 lead.

Something about that leadoff spot.

There’s something about Watkins, the former 30th-round draft pick, that makes the rotation a safer place. Not your prototypical come-to-the-rescue kind of guy. Molds are broken as more stories are told.

“That’s what I’ve dreamed my entire career is be able to have success in the big leagues and to be able to do that three times in a row is incredible,” Watkins said. “And it just pushes me to continue to keep getting better, keep working. Complacency is not an option for me, so continue to work, continue to get better and keep doing it. It’s been an incredible ride so far. I’m enjoying the heck out of it.”

“He’s a great story,” said Hyde, who confirmed the obvious that Watkins is staying in the rotation. “I just like that he’s pitching with confidence. The home plate umpire, who I’ve known a long time, just mentioned to me that he was impressed with his stuff. He was surprised that he hadn’t been in the big leagues for very long, just because of the crispness of his stuff and how he can command. He’s not going to be overpowering, but he’s got a nice cutter, throws some good changeups to a mostly left-handed lineup, with a breaking ball, and being able to locate his four-seamer. Able to work in and out and change speeds, so he’s pitching. The old school art of pitching instead of trying to blow the ball by everybody at the top of the zone. It’s fun to watch.”

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