Top Orioles pitching prospect Hunter Harvey had gone through a lot while he waited for the chance to start a game — any kind of game — at the major league level, so he made sure he enjoyed the moment.
He made his first career Grapefruit League start Tuesday and looked calm and confident during two solid innings in the Orioles’ 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays at Charlotte Sports Park.
“It felt awesome,” he said. “Felt good to be back on the mound and face hitters again.”
Harvey showed off his 95 mph fastball, mixed in a few breaking pitches and, when he let his mind wander, marveled at the veteran major league batters he got to face.
Center fielder Denard Span and designated hitter Kevin Kiermaier led off the Rays’ half of the first inning with back-to-back singles, but instead of feeling some rookie panic, Harvey considered the situation and just took it all in stride. In two innings, he allowed one run on three hits with three strikeouts.
“It’s just weird,” he said. “I remember watching Denard Span play for a long time. So, it was cool to face him. It was cool to get in there and get some big league hitters, and kind of get a taste of it.”
Normally, manager Buck Showalter wouldn’t make too much of an early-spring start, but Harvey’s minor league career has featured a long list of time-consuming injuries, from sports hernia surgery to a broken leg to the granddaddy of all pitching setbacks — Tommy John elbow reconstruction.
So, it was more than just your average exhibition appearance.
“He deserves it,” Showalter said before the game. “The kid’s been through a lot. Who knows what today’s going to bring or down the road’s going to bring, but I did want him to be in a role his first time out that he’s used to — not coming in, not knowing what inning he’s going to come in and not knowing when he’s going to warm up. I think it’s important because we have high hopes for him.”
There has been some debate over what level Harvey, 23, will start at in the Orioles minor league system this year. He has pitched so little in the minors that speculation has placed him as low as High-A Frederick at the outset, but Showalter isn’t ruling anything out.
Even though the Orioles have a crowded spring pitching roster, Showalter said Harvey might remain in the spring rotation.
“Potentially,” Showalter said. “Ask me at the end of the day, but he’s got a chance to make it a little tough on us. We’ll see.”
Showalter was asked after the game if he had more to say on the subject.
“We’ll see how it shakes out with the B games and some of the guys we don't want pitching in certain games,” he said. “We’ll see where it takes us.”
Though it seems highly unlikely that Harvey will start the season on the major league roster, the organization is open to him climbing to the major league level sometime late in the season. If he pitches so well in spring that he threatens to speed up that timetable, all the better.
“That’s my goal,” Harvey said. “Coming into camp, it’s nice, they told me in the offseason, ‘Hey, you are up in the air now, you’re just like anybody else.’ You hear that and it puts a little fire in you.”
The Orioles have tried to tread lightly with their best young pitchers. They pampered Dylan Bundy and he still ended up having elbow surgery. Showalter indicated the club might take a similar approach with Harvey, but likes to point out that there’s no consensus on how many innings a young pitcher should throw early in his career.
“Yeah, to a point,” Showalter said. “There’s no real basis for it. There’s no concrete plan for those things. Everybody tells you to really rely on your eyes, the feel, the players and what they say, the trainers. There’s no blueprint for exactly how you handle it. I wish there was.
“The baseline is pretty wide-ranging. I think a lot of people are going to be using some of the things [we did] with Dylan as they go forward, because everyone is looking for when and how much, and nobody really has the data to support anything.”
Showalter sees some parallels when he looks at Harvey and Bundy, who blossomed last year into the Orioles winningest pitcher.
“A lot,” Showalter said, “and I think that’s why they have a certain connection. I know Dylan will be telling him the right things.”