"Hunter needs to pitch," or some variant of that short phrase, has been the Orioles' company line regarding top pitching prospect Hunter Harvey all spring long. It was true through the dalliance in spring training with keeping him on their Opening Day roster, and it's remained true since, save for a few idle days in the big league bullpen.
So, even with the Orioles needing at least one and maybe two fill-in starters this week at the major league level at the time he was scheduled to start Tuesday for Double-A Bowie, Harvey pitched.
And what did those four innings of four-hit, three-run ball with two walks and five strikeouts say about the most promising arm in the farm system who, at 23, is pitching healthy for the first time since 2013?
"For me, Hunter's biggest thing right now is he needs to pitch," Bowie pitching coach Kennie Steenstra said after the game. "He's just had so much time off, and for never pitching above [Low-A] Delmarva until this year, he's a guy that needs to gain experience.
"He's been better every time he's gone out there this year, and it hasn't exactly been backed up numbers-wise. But he's gotten better. He's getting a better feel for all of his pitches, his delivery's getting a little more cleaned up each time he steps out there, and he's just a guy that needs to pitch and get his pro ball experience. He just hasn't pitched enough to really get rolling the way we know he can get rolling."
Harvey feels the same way, saying that even with a full spring training the notion of him pitching in a rotation and trying to be a good version of himself every time through hasn't been the most comfortable or natural process for him.
"I just don't feel like I'm quite there yet, but it's getting better," Harvey said. "It's just trying to get back used to it. It's been three years since I really had to get into a good routine and pitch every couple days. I like it a lot better, being able to get into a routine and actually pitch every couple days and not sit in Florida and hang out for a year. But it's starting to get better, and each time out, I've felt stronger. The body has felt better. I'm just trying to get more consistent with everything now."
The Orioles' plans could change for him at any moment, and Harvey, their first-round draft pick in 2013, could be plucked from the Eastern League and challenged with a major league assignment. Viewing Tuesday's outing outside of that context, and instead looking at him as a 23-year-old with 165 2/3 professional innings who is in his first full year back from Tommy John elbow reconstruction, delivers much more of the promise that anyone who watches him pitch can see.
In a 22-pitch first inning Tuesday, Harvey worked primarily off a fastball that was 93-95 mph all night but issued a walk and allowed two singles — one didn't leave the infield — to put himself into an early hole. The inning ended with a strikeout/caught-stealing double play, which saved him from further stress.
The second inning had no such duress, and much better fastball command. He used the pitch on both sides of the plate in striking out first baseman Drew Ward, finishing him off swinging at a 95 mph fastball on the outer half before he got a pair of quick groundouts.
Harvey knows he's the only culprit for innings that are so different from one another.
"I feel like it's all at the rubber," he said. "I kind of get a little quick sometimes and get too amped up, and it's being able to control that, especially at the big league level. You've got to control it every inning because those guys make you pay even more than they do down here. It's just being able to command all my pitches and control them in the zone."
Harvey did that a few times after Tuesday's start — contextualize an area he struggled in with the high level in that facet of the game required to succeed at the major leagues. The same goes for his secondary pitches. He's seen how he's struggled on days when he's had his lively fastball but no crisp curveball or changeup, and knows big league hitters will punish him for that more.
His curveball, which was a swing-and-miss offering last time he was healthy in the South Atlantic League, isn't as enticing to Double-A hitters. It still has plus potential with the ability to be his out pitch, but the next step is commanding it for strikes instead of just as a chase pitch.
He knows his changeup needs to improve, and that comes simply by throwing it, but both hits in a two-run third inning came on it. Each was thrown in the first pitch of an at-bat. One was a bunt, and the other was to one of the game's hottest prospects, outfielder Juan Soto. It's not just that he throws them, but when that he can learn at this level.
"I think pitch selection, figuring out how he wants to attack guys, putting guys away, all those things you learn with experience he really hasn't had to worry about any of that in high school because his stuff was so good," Steenstra said. "And even in his minimal time in pro ball in Delmarva, he was probably able to blow those guys away and get them to chase breaking balls in the dirt. So, he's just having to learn how to set up guys a little better, how to pitch to locations a little better, and he's doing a fantastic job. It's just going to take a little time to get it all worked out."
Tuesday's game was suspended ahead of the seventh inning because of rain, so Harvey's ERA technically remains at 3.63 until the game becomes official upon its completion Wednesday morning. Then, it will be 4.22 in 21 1/3 innings, with 17 strikeouts and a 1.31 WHIP in six starts. That leaves plenty of room for improvement, and he knows what improvement can mean.
"I'm OK being here because I know if I pitch to my ability and do everything that I need to do, that eventually, if they need me, I'll be ready," Harvey said. "I try not to get caught up in all that. I'm not in the big leagues. I'm in Double-A. I've got to do what I've got to do to be good in Double-A right now. The main goal is to be in the big leagues and be a good pitcher, but right now, it's about helping this team win and dominating this level."