For all the emphasis the Orioles have placed on developing their own starting pitching, the last homegrown pitcher before David Hess to make his debut in the starting role he'd been groomed for in the minors was Mike Wright Jr. nearly three years ago.
In the interim, pitchers like Hess have watched from the minors, built up fine resumes and hoped their own debut could be as simple — and successful — as his proved to be Saturday. Hess debuted not in a mop-up relief cameo, and not as an emergency call-up, but with a genuine opportunity to pitch well and earn a rotation spot going forward. He got in a day ahead of time to get settled. He got praised by the manager, and not just referred to as the only available option. Then, he got on the mound and showed he could do it.
After Hess allowed four straight hits including a three-run home run in the first inning, he settled in for six sturdy innings and a quality start to help the Orioles win their fourth straight game, 6-3, in the front end of Saturday's doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays. Hess, the 26th man for Saturday’s doubleheader, was returned to Triple-A Norfolk at the end of the night, but can be called back up at any time.
“It was fun to watch,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “One of the things we've always liked about David is his moxie. He showed you a little bit there. A lot of guys would have pulled the dirt around them a little bit. But he didn't. That's one of the things we liked about giving him the opportunity.”
That the opportunity came in a role Hess is familiar with certainly aided matters.
“I said going into it, I kind of hoped that I would get that start,” he said. “I was fortunate to be able to do that and go out there and just kind of get into my routine that I've been doing this year and continuing from last year. It kind of helped calm the nerves I guess and settle in a little bit more than I think out of the bullpen, just being a starter coming up. I think that helped out.”
The first inning taught Hess a valuable lesson — pitching in the strike zone in the major leagues is a requirement, but care is called for while doing so. After he retired Denard Span to open the game, C.J. Cron and Joey Wendle singled on four-seamers in quick succession, then Matt Duffy hit a high fastball out to left-center field to make it 3-0 four batters in. Brad Miller followed with a single of his own, but Hess got out of the inning with a grounder and his first career strikeout.
He said he didn’t feel nervous at the time, but acknowledged nerves might have been there.
“I didn't feel that much, to be honest with you,” he said. “I think that might be nerves in itself. But after that home run, I felt like everything kind of slowed down a little bit, so I think without realizing it there might have been some. But then after that, I just kind of settled in and felt like I was able to make the pitches that I wanted to make. Chance [Sisco] called a great game back there. We were on the same page. You can't beat that.”
Hess was nearly flawless from then on. Pitching before a crowd that grew as the day went on but always included three rows of family and friends behind home plate cheering his every pitch, Hess pitched a 1-2-3 second inning, stranded Wendle at third in the third inning, then had a five-pitch fourth, a 10-pitch fifth and worked around another Wendle single for a clean sixth inning to seal his line.
He fanned three, didn't issue a walk, and left after 78 pitches (56 strikes), a symptom of his starting on three days’ rest. Showalter praised his ability to get batters out early in counts, and said he wasn’t going to go much past 80 pitches. The 24-year-old pitched off his fastball plenty early, holding the 91-94 mph velocity that he's always featured, and showcased a slider that got him five of his seven swinging strikes. Six of his outs were in the air, but only Duffy's was particularly well hit and none of the others required much more than a jog from his outfielders.
“He's a four-pitch mix, and he got some outs with the changeup today, too,” Showalter said. “You spend a lot of time when you're looking at the reports, to see that the mix of pitches are there because you've got to have them up here. That’s a thing we talk about with some pitchers. When you see that mix of pitches, we got a chance.”
All told, the moment lived up to what Hess hoped it would be.
“I can't really even put it into words,” Hess said. “It's just an experience that you literally dream about since you were a kid. For it to happen and to be here … it's great. It is hard to put into words, but it's definitely been everything and more that I hoped it would be.”
It helped that the Orioles erased his deficit quickly and made a winner of him. After Duffy’s home run, he told himself that if he calmed down, that’s what would happen. It did. Jonathan Schoop hit his second home run of the season to open the second inning, and the Orioles tied it on an RBI double by Sisco and a double-steal of home by their rookie catcher, who became the first Oriole since Cal Ripken Jr. in 1982 to swipe home as his first big league stolen base.
Manny Machado tied for the major league lead with 13 home runs with a blast to open the third, and Schoop immediately followed with his second homer of the game to give Hess an insurance run. With the homer, Schoop hit his 92nd career homer, tying Brian Roberts for the franchise record for long balls by a second baseman. Mark Trumbo scored on a wild pitch after reaching on a double in the sixth to cap the Orioles’ scoring.
Tanner Scott followed Hess with 1 1/3 scoreless innings, retiring four of the five batters he faced. Mychal Givens then finished it off with 1 2/3 scoreless innings for his first career save.