Overlooked no more: Donnie Hart came up big in O’s bullpen

Can a player drafted in the 27th round - one who was never considered a top prospect and has never advanced to Triple-A - help the Orioles?

He can if that player is pitcher Donnie Hart. The lefty reliever is used to being overlooked. He saw 818 players taken ahead of him in the 2013 draft until the Texas State product heard the Orioles call his name.

Desperate for a dependable matchup left-handed reliever, the Orioles turned to Hart mid-season. He made his big league debut July 17 at Tampa Bay, made three scoreless appearances and then went back to Double-A Bowie. In August, returned for good.

Hart-Throws-Gray-Sidebar.jpgNext year, we find out if Hart can follow up his stunning success from this season. He threw 18 scoreless outings to begin his major league career and gave up one run over 22 appearances. He had an 0.49 ERA. Over 18 1/3 innings, he allowed 12 hits with six walks and 12 strikeouts.

At Double-A this year, lefty batters hit .188 against him and right-handers batted .267. With the Orioles, he held lefties to an average of .132 and right-handed batters hit .292.

For Bowie, Hart went 3-1 with a 2.72 ERA and seven walks to 50 strikeouts over 46 1/3 innings. He won the Jim Palmer Award as the Orioles’ 2016 minor league Pitcher of the Year.

Throwing sinking fastballs from his sidearm delivery, Hart also featured a plus slider. He got plenty of swings and misses with that pitch and big league hitters batted .050 off his slider. He got nine of his 12 strikeouts with that pitch and used it to hold David Ortiz and Bryce Harper to a combined 0-for-5 against him.

In addition to throwing some pretty solid pitches, Hart showed plenty of poise and guts as well. Manager Buck Showalter was fond of saying, “Hart is not afraid out there,” a clear sign that the skipper was fond of his moxie.

As I came to learn in several conversations with him during the second half, Hart is a real student of the game.

“Every day that I’ve been up here, I’ve learned something new,” he said in August. “Every single day. Whether it be from the pitching side of it, the defensive side of it or how to study hitters. Have learned something new every day.”

Hart used that cerebral approach to make a big play against the Washington Nationals on Aug. 22. He came on in the eighth inning to protect a 4-3 lead and Daniel Murphy doubled. When Harper hit a comebacker to the mound, Hart spun and looked at second base. Murphy had strayed off the bag and Hart threw behind him to get a key out and take a runner out of scoring position. After that game, Hart mentioned that, when looking at video, he noticed Murphy had strayed too far off second earlier in the year on a similar play. So when Hart fielded the ball, he looked that way. Sure enough, the pregame prep work paid off for a big out.

So his first exposure to the majors was a rousing success for the 26-year-old lefty who is suddenly no longer overlooked. He’s gone from little known Double-A pitcher to a key member of the Baltimore bullpen.

Hart is smart enough to know his big league roster spot is by no means established after just 22 games. He’ll have to show up in Sarasota in February and do it all over again. If he can come up with ways to defend himself a little better against right-handed batters, he could become more than a specialist.

But he sure did a nice job in that role this year. You probably don’t notice a matchup reliever until you don’t have one with the game on the line in the seventh or eighth inning. Sometimes the game can truly be saved in that big spot, even well before Zach Britton gets the final three outs.

Will Hart have what it takes to continue as key pitcher in the Orioles bullpen?

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