Next challenge for baseball’s best pitching prospect: Bouncing back

BOWIE - When he takes the mound tonight for Double-A Bowie against Erie, the highest-ranked pitching prospect in baseball, right-hander Grayson Rodriguez of the Baysox, will face a unique challenge. It is one he seldom faces. He’ll try to pitch well coming off a poor start.

Last Tuesday versus the Reading Fightin Phils, the 21-year-old Rodriguez allowed two hits and one run over five innings with one walk and six strikeouts. That start was like most of the 19 he has made this year for both high Single-A Aberdeen and Bowie. He is 8-1 with a 2.54 ERA between the two teams, allowing two runs or fewer in 15 of 19 outings.

But then came last Sunday. Reading got to see him for the second time in a week. They made some adjustments and Rodriguez allowed six hits and five runs over 3 2/3 innings, and gave up his ninth homer this year. He allowed a season high in runs and gave up three more runs in that one game than he had in his previous four games.

Having to bounce back from a bad outing has certainly not been on his plate much this season.

During an interview Friday before the game at Prince George’s Stadium, Rodriguez said that provided him his latest learning opportunity - even if it’s one he seldom gets.

“Yeah. Typically, your bad experiences are the ones you learn the most from,” Rodriguez said. “That was one of the weeks where I faced a lineup twice. I was able to dominate that first day on Tuesday. Sunday was a little different. I felt great and everything was working for me in the bullpen before the game. But again, we’re in Double-A and these hitters know what they are doing.

“They were fouling off good pitches, getting into deep counts, and then when I made a bad pitch, you know, I had to pay for it. We never really look, necessarily, at numbers in this organization. So, it doesn’t matter whether you look good or bad on paper, it’s about how much better you got each day. That was an outing where I learned from it. Ultimately, it’s good for you to learn from it.”

Rodriguez-Throws-Bowie-White-Sidebar.jpgSuch maturity and smarts, in addition to undeniable big talent, make Rodriguez now the highest-rated pitching prospect in baseball by both, where he is the No. 8 overall prospect in their top 100, and by Baseball America, where he comes in at No. 9.

So how did Reading adjust to him on Sunday?

“I think they were a little bit more aggressive,” Rodriguez said. “Teams have typically been aggressive against me this year. Not really wanting to get to two strikes. I would say they were trying to attack the first pitch and then also having some long at-bats. Almost treating it from a two-strike approach from the beginning.”

The right-hander with the high-90s fastball - which has touched 100 mph this year - is 5-1 with a 2.92 ERA in his 14 Bowie-only starts. Over 61 2/3 innings he has allowed 39 hits with seven homers, 17 walks and 95 strikeouts. His WHIP is 0.91 and he yields a batting average against of .174.

It’s been a year of continued developing for Rodriguez and the Orioles, who are trying to take the No. 11 pick in round one of the 2018 draft and turn him into a future big league top-of-rotation pitcher.

“Probably just the learning experience (is the best thing about this year),” said Rodriguez. “I’d say I’ve learned a lot this year. Like how to read scouting reports and how to go out and attack hitters. I’ve obviously learned that you can’t just throw it wherever, or throw the fastball wherever. Balls left over the middle of the plate get hit, and get hit for extra bases.

“Just all these learning experiences about how to pitch to older hitters - guys that have a plan, rather than like A-ball, where guys are just up there swinging. Also, kind of figuring out what my strengths are, like a heater up in the zone. Stuff like that.”

Rodriguez said that during his year of further prospect growth he’s had nights when he has thrown 35 to 40 percent fastballs and nights when he has thrown 60 percent or more, giving him time to learn how to both implement the scouting report and work on all his pitches. He mixes in a cutter now at times as another offering to keep hitters off his fastball.

Rodriguez called being ranked baseball’s top pitching prospect “an honor” while pointing out it won’t impact his career much for better or worse. He seemed to take bigger pride when talking about how the O’s farm was ranked as No. 1 in the majors this week by after earlier moving up to No. 2 in the Baseball America rankings.

“Honestly, that’s greater than any kind of personal achievement,” he said. “To see that everything we’re putting in place from an organizational standpoint is working. And actually, it kind of happened quicker than we thought it would. But it’s a huge confidence-booster for everybody. No matter who you are. It’s nice to see you’re in an organization like this. Good for the fans to see what we’ve got in the minor leagues and actually how good our minor leaguers are.”

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