To say that Adam Kolarek grew up an Orioles fan might be an understatement.
Growing up in Catonsville, he never turned down an opportunity to watch a game Camden Yards. He was in the stands on the night Cal Ripken Jr. tied Lou Gehrig’s record consecutive-games streak. His family was friends with former longtime Orioles strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop, which allowed him to meet his idols as a kid, from Ripken to Roberto Alomar to Brady Anderson to Rafael Palmeiro.
As a pitcher, he would try to attend games the nights that Mike Mussina and Scott Erickson started because they were his favorite pitchers watch. But up until Saturday, the only time he took the mound at Oriole Park was when he participated in the Brooks Robinson High School All-Star Game a decade ago after his senior year at Catonsville High before moving on the University of Maryland.
Kolarek, a 28-year-old lefty reliever who made his major league debut Thursday pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays, got the chance to pitch against his hometown team in the ninth inning of the Orioles’ 10-3 blowout loss. He pitched a scoreless inning, overcoming a leadoff walk and an error before inducing a flyout and a double play.
Before the game, he anticipated any opportunity to pitch at Camden Yards this weekend would be a special moment in a professional baseball career that has taken several turns.
“It would mean the world,” Kolarek said. “I can think of so many special games I saw here. … To share the same field with the guys I grew up idolizing, it just adds to all the excitement and makes it that much more special. … To even think about how everything [has] played out that in [my first] weekend when I get called up that I’m back here, it’s been so special, just to share it with my family and my friends. It’s just more than we could ever hope for.”
Kolarek’s childhood affinity for Camden Yards still holds true. He has an apartment just two blocks from the ballpark, and on September nights when his minor league season was over, he’d call his dad, Frank — who is currently an Orioles scout — to join him for a game. He watched from the stands as Delmon Young’s three-run double helped the Orioles win Game 2 of the 2014 American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers. And on nights when he didn’t want to cook, he’d find himself walking toward the ballpark to get dinner from one of the food carts outside the gates.
“I’d do it even if I wasn’t going to the game just because the atmosphere there is so awesome and the food outside is so good,” Kolarek said.
Kolarek, an 11th-round draft pick of the New York Mets in 2010 after his junior season at Maryland, was actually briefly an Orioles farmhand. He signed as a minor league free agent after the 2015 season, but he never pitched in the Orioles organization, selected by the Rays in the Triple-A portion of the Rule 5 draft that offseason just six weeks after signing.
The previous season, when he was pitching for the Mets’ Double-A club in Binghamton, Kolarek took a leap of faith by lowering his arm angle, going from a conventional delivery to a sidearm one, an idea he had from the movement he could get from casually throwing the ball sidearm while shagging balls during batting practice.
He changed his delivery in May 2015, completely reinventing himself, then honing his delivery and finding consistency while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, prompting the Rays to swipe him from the Orioles that offseason.
In his first full year as a sidearmer in 2016, he made big strides pitching at the Double-A and Triple-A levels in the Rays organization, posting a 3.19 ERA in 59 1/3 innings overall.
“I started to get the feeling that I would really do this,” Kolarek said. “There was a noticeable difference for me in terms of how my outings would go. I was getting weaker contact, I was getting ahead of guys in counts, not walking as many guys. So as far as my progression through the minors, my last season was all about consistency. It was such a change. For 26 years, I was over the top and then dropped down while I was in Double-A. It wasn’t like I was trying it out in rookie ball. … I took the chance, I took the risk and it has definitely paid off.”
He was signed by the Atlanta Braves as a minor league free agent this past offseason, but found his way back to the Rays three days after being cut by Atlanta in the final week of spring training.
The familiarity paid off, and Kolarek posted a 1.36 ERA in 33 relief innings at Triple-A Durham while holding opposing hitters to a .217 batting average. His contract was selected by the Rays late Tuesday night, and he threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings in his major league debut Thursday at the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“I feel like I’ve always known the mental side of how to attack hitters, and last year was my first full season with my new arm slot and I had played some winter ball to help me find my release point,” Kolarek said. “It’s all about consistency. It really helped me to iron out my release point.”
Getting to pitch at Camden Yards this weekend, Kolarek anticipated that would be the easy part. It’s the whirlwind that he has already experienced in his first time in Baltimore as a big leaguer that he has gotten caught up in.
“Getting to come out of the dugout and seeing the Orioles take BP [on Friday], it was awesome,” Kolarek said. “I was saying this to my parents and my friends, everything leading up to the game, that’s the part that doesn’t seem real. Walking around town and going to the stadium, being in the locker room. But once the game starts, it’s kind of funny because that’s when it starts to feel normal. I’m able to kind of separate the two. Even the other night in Pittsburgh, I felt like when I was on the mound in a game situation, that’s when I felt relaxed and ready to go compared to having all the outside things that just add to the spectacle of it.”