Right-hander David Hess’ rookie season with the Orioles didn’t turn heads. He had his ups and downs. After his opportunity to join the team’s starting rotation in May arrived mostly by default, he received a midseason demotion to the minors and upon his return worked in the bullpen before rejoining the rotation — again more because of need than performance.
But as Hess, 25, made his final start of the 2018 season in the Orioles’ 2-1 loss to the defending World Series champion Houston Astros, he completed a two-month run in which he might have been the team’s most consistent starting pitcher, another label that must be taken in context.
Still, on Friday night, Hess ended his rookie campaign by holding a formidable lineup to three hits over seven innings. He kept the Astros scoreless for most of his outing, his only mistake coming on a full-count hanging slider to Josh Reddick that landed on the flag court in right field in the sixth for Houston’s only run off him.
“He was really good,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “That was fun to watch. It was good to see him end on a good note. I really wanted him to have a good outing. That was good to see. I told him that. I didn’t want to push it any more than that. Anytime you see a young pitcher go against a good team for a third time around the batting order and still be able to get outs, that’s good to see.”
Quietly, Hess has made a case for a more solid spot in the back end of next year’s rotation. In 10 starts since returning to the rotation Aug. 3, Hess had a respectable 3.88 ERA. It’s been a consistent run, but also an unspectacular one – Friday’s outing was just his fourth quality start in that stretch — but he had a strong finish.
“It’s been an up-and-down season in a lot of aspects and so I really wanted to go out there tonight and just kind of put a good taste in everybody’s mouth going into the offseason and into next season and kind of show everybody what we’re capable of,” Hess said. “We had great defense back there as a team. Had great defense as a team. [Austin Wynns] called a great game and I just threw the best pitches I could.”
After 21 appearances (19 starts), Hess will end the season with a 4.88 ERA, which is pedestrian, but considering his ERA was sitting at 6.41 on Aug. 3, it’s a significant improvement.
Hess’ seven-inning, one-run outing was not only valuable to him, but also to an Orioles team that needs to account for two games in Saturday’s doubleheader.
On Friday, Hess retired 16 of 18 after José Altuve led off the game dropping a bunt to third base for a single. Three of the first six outs Hess recorded came by strikeout, two of them on fastballs that he pinpointed at the top and bottom of the zones.
His midseason struggles — he went through an ugly four-start stretch in which he allowed 21 runs over 17 2/3 innings — were rooted in command problems. But Hess seemed to find his control. Over that four-start stretch that eventually booted him out of the rotation, Hess walked more batters (11) than he struck out (10). Over his last nine starts, Hess had more than twice as many strikeouts (40) as walks (16). On Friday, both walks Hess issued came in his final inning, the seventh.
“I think confidence has been a big thing, just kind of picking the brains of the veteran guys,” Hess said. “We made a couple of … nothing major, just a couple of mechanical changes, a couple of tweaks here and there, and I think that’s really paid off. That’s really allowed me to execute pitchers better, just throw them where I want to and be a little safer with the misses that we have. So really the biggest thing is to improve and to grind it out each day.”
The key had been pitching more effectively, and confidently, with his four-seam fastball. He’s been getting ahead in more counts, keeping the ball in play while realizing swings and misses will come using his slider off his fastball.
“He’s got secondary pitches to pitch here,” Showalter said. “It’s just if he can make them honor the fastball and where he can throw it, then a lot of things will open up to him.”
For many rookies, this offers them their first taste of pitching this deep in the season. While Hess’ 149 total innings this season will be less than last year’s 154 1/3 at Double-A Bowie, Showalter said it’s pitching in September that will serve Hess well in the future.
“You keep talking about shutting guys down, [but] there’s some things to be learned and things that need to be experienced in September and hopefully down the road pitching in October,” Showalter said. “I know Dylan [Bundy] and some young pitchers, [Kevin] Gausman, used to talk about how important it was to pitch in September and some cases October so when you go in the offseason you know what you’re preparing for and realize what this is all about and why you need to do certain things and not always more is better in spring training and know how long the season is.
“But it’s doubly good to see David finishing up strong this late in the season, especially with the starts he’s had.”