It was the top of the fifth inning on March 2 at Sloan Park in Mesa, Ariz. For most of those watching that day, it was just another spring training baseball game with the Chicago Cubs hosting Kansas City. But for right-hander Gray Fenter, it was not just another day. He was about to pitch in a big league game for the first time.
Taken by the Cubs from the Orioles organization in December’s Rule 5 draft, Fenter was trying to beat long odds and win a bullpen job for a team that has been in the playoffs in five of the last six years. The 2016 World Series winners. And it had to give him confidence just to be taken in that draft. It was further confirmation that his comeback from Tommy John surgery in April 2016 was complete. He had missed all of that season and pitched just 30 innings the following year.
Fenter was Rule 5-eligible in December 2019. He had finished that season with the best ERA of any O’s minor leaguer throwing 90 or more innings. But he wasn’t taken. Then in December, after there had not even been a minor league season, he was drafted.
Now he was about to face the Royals and pitch in a big league game.
“It was a lot of fun. Just nice to be back on a baseball field for the first time in over a year and you know be pitching at that place,” Fenter told me yesterday in a phone interview from O’s camp. “And big league camp for the first time. It was just a great experience and it was a lot of fun to get that under my belt. I can’t wait for that opportunity to come again,”
He put up a zero that day in that one inning. No runs, no hits.
He walked former Oriole Hanser Alberto with one out, but Bubba Starling lined out and Lucius Fox grounded out. But that turned out to be the only game he got into with the Cubs. He threw a few live batting practice sessions, but he was returned to the Orioles on March 12 and he has been working out at Twins Lakes Park ever since.
“There were definitely some nerves and a little bit of that starstruck feel that you are not supposed to have, but it’s hard not to have that when you’re playing catch with guys that have won Cy Youngs and you’ve looked up to your whole life,” Fenter said.
But Fenter took it as a chance to learn and grow as a pitcher.
“Whether I made the team or not, my main goal of spring was to basically walk in and be the biggest sponge I could be,” he said. “I wouldn’t say there was necessarily one main guy that helped me. As a collective, everyone was very open and honest about where my stuff fit and played and what I would need to do to get guys out at the big league level.”
When he traveled back to Florida and rejoined the Orioles, he was heading back to the organization that selected him out of high school in round seven of the 2015 draft. He was signed to a well over-slot bonus of $1 million.
“It was honestly like going home a little bit,” he said of rejoining the orange and black. “I’ve spent a lot of time here, so it was more of a relaxed environment for me. I know people here and people know who I am. Just a more at home feeling.”
For a Single-A Delmarva team that went 90-48 and was dominant at times on the mound in 2019, Fenter went 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA and 1.10 WHIP. Over 94 1/3 innings, he allowed just 61 hits and averaged 4.1 walks per nine and 11.7 strikeouts.
After baseball shut down last March, Fenter spent 2020 at home in Marion, Ark., near Memphis, Tenn., and worked out at his local high school. He feels he got in the equivalent of 80 to 100 innings, counting all of his bullpen sessions, and he worked every fifth day as he would have if there had been a season.
Being a Rule 5 draft pick let Fenter know he might be back in the bigs one day.
“I would say after the year off and after surgery, having a team take that chance on me gave me confidence that I believe a lot of guys are going to need coming back into the game after last season. Just realizing that it’s going to be all right,” he said.
Fenter said he has no idea yet what affiliate he would join this year. He could begin with high Single-A Aberdeen or Double-A Bowie. He believes he will remain a starter, but hasn’t been told yet.
He threw one inning of live BP yesterday at Twin Lakes, where he faced DJ Stewart, among others. Fenter felt he was sitting between 92 and 94 mph with his fastball. He said his changeup has improved but his curveball is still probably his top secondary pitch.
“Being with Chris Holt (O’s pitching coach/director of pitching) and Justin Ramsey (now Bowie pitching coach) in 2019 when they came over, they really helped me improve my game and improve as a pitcher,” he said. “Being back with those guys who know me and know what gets me in the right spot on the mound, that’s a comfortable feeling to come back to.
“They give me confidence. They helped me when I asked questions and when I asked they had real answers. They were just honest. They told me what I needed to do and how to practice to do those things when I got in a game.”
I asked Fenter what he would say if, before the next Rule 5 draft, someone that might get taken calls him and asks for advice on being a Rule 5 selection.
“I would tell that kid to enjoy the moment, because you can go home at any day,” he said. “Don’t worry so much about you know, rubbing somebody the wrong way or doing something wrong. Just enjoy the moment and relax. Because you are there for a reason.”
Was he able to do that?
“I would say that I didn’t relax,” Fenter said. “I was probably too focused on making sure I was doing the right things at all times rather than being myself on a baseball field.
“But it was a great opportunity. I’m thankful for them taking a chance on me and having me pitch in a major league ballgame, even though it was only spring training. Nice to face the highest competition.”