Shortly after completing his final rehabilitation start of the season for the Delmarva Shorebirds on Monday, Orioles pitching prospect Hunter Harvey and a friend from back home in North Carolina were set for over seven hours on the road.
Harvey will leave behind a seven-week rehab stint that went better than even he could imagine, and in defying his own expectations since getting back onto the mound, the 22-year-old right-hander put himself on the cusp of being able to meet the lofty ones laid out for him as a first-round draft pick in 2013 and a once-and-future top prospect.
"It's been good," Harvey said after exiting Monday's game. "Coming into it, I wasn't expecting to do as good as I did. I guess that's just kind of a plus and even more of a confidence-builder.
"Everything feels good. We weren't going to worry about the numbers, and it ended up working out. I pitched a lot better than I ever thought I would coming back from these last couple months. Everything's coming around, feeling good again. The arm feels good. It's only taken three years, but it's been awesome so far."
Harvey's rehab period, which took him through the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and then to Short-A Aberdeen and now Low-A Delmarva, ended Monday with three innings for the Shorebirds.
He allowed a pair of runs on three hits with a walk, a hit batter, and five strikeouts, giving him 18 2/3 innings over eight rehab starts with just two runs in. He fanned 30 and walked just six while allowing 11 hits.
Much has changed since Harvey's previous outing at Perdue Stadium in 2014, when he was dazzling in his full-season debut with the Shorebirds at age 19. That season was shortened by a flexor mass strain in his right forearm, starting three years of health problems.
After Harvey impressed in major league camp in 2015, a batted ball in minor league camp fractured his leg. Elbow problems kept him from throwing a competitive pitch that year, and after a sports hernia kept him from joining an affiliate out of spring training last year, he made just five appearances before an elbow injury that eventually required Tommy John reconstruction.
That meant this season, the last before Harvey must be added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, was all about re-establishing his health. Part of that has been simply to get back into competitive games, which Harvey has relished.
"Really, I was just trying to get on the mound and feel it again," he said. "That feeling was something I was trying to get back and just build confidence really — to be able to be on a mound and not hurt."
Monday's swan song proved that to be true. Harvey began his day with a three-pitch strikeout, going upstairs with a 96 mph fastball to set down leadoff hitter Adrian Valerio swinging. He worked around a two-out single for a 16-pitch inning, and fanned two more — one swinging and one looking — on either side of a one-out walk.
The third inning was a little rockier, resulting in the first runs he's allowed on this year. Center fielder Garrett Brown singled to open the frame, and was soon on third base after no one covered second base on a stolen base attempt and watched as the throw went into the outfield.
Brown was eliminated on a fielder's choice at the plate, but Harvey hit right fielder Clark Egan and saw two runs score on a double by third baseman Hunter Brown. He ended the day with his fifth strikeout, and first on a curveball, to complete his three innings on 53 pitches.
As he's worked his way back from Tommy John surgery, Harvey has mostly leaned on his fastball, which topped out at 97 mph and sat 93-96 mph consistently Monday. It was effectively high in the zone in the first inning, but he dotted it on the lower half of the plate as the day went on.
His curveball came along as the day progressed, and was the best he's had all summer, he said. For competitive reasons, he's been saving his work on his changeup for bullpen and flat-ground sessions so as not to speed up any bats during games.
Shorebirds pitching coach Justin Lord has worked with Harvey not only this year in Delmarva, but also last year in Aberdeen when he suffered the elbow injury and in Sarasota, Fla., during extended spring training before that.
"I never had Hunter Harvey's stuff, but I've been through a lot of injuries, having that type of thing in common with him," Lord said. "I know how that is, and I say that to say I see him confident now. I see him confident on the mound. I see him confident in his stuff. Each outing gets better.
“He progresses each outing with little things that you'll see, I think, culminate into the ultimate goal for him. It's just small steps along the way that are improving and I think are going to get him where he needs to go and where everybody in Baltimore wants him to pitch."
Harvey's relief that the season was through, and that this last major hurdle before a healthy offseason was behind him, was clear once he exited the game. An offseason spent in hunting stands, not worrying about his health, was imminent.
"It's just exciting, knowing it's my first offseason just to be normal," Harvey said. "I'm not rehabbing, for once. Just being able to relax and go at it and come into spring training normal, having a normal throwing program and normal workout and everything, I don't have restrictions. I don't have to be crazy about taking it easy or this or that. It's just nice knowing it's all good now. Everything's behind me."