Mike Wright hasn't had many opportunities to prove his worth in the Orioles starting rotation. Sixteen days into the season and Wright was stepping on the mound Tuesday for just his second start, his scheduled starts postponed or pushed back three different times.
And facing the Toronto Blue Jays — a team Wright called his "kryptonite" — for the third time in 11 career starts offered another challenge in his big league development.
For the first time in nine starts, dating to his second big league start with the Orioles last May 23, Wright went six innings, allowing three runs on six hits in a 4-3 loss to Toronto on Tuesday. It was just the Orioles' second quality start in 12 games this season.
By leaning less on his mid-90s fastball and more on his off-speed pitches and breaking ball, Wright navigated through a Blue Jays lineup that had literally given him fits in the past. He entered the night with a 9.45 ERA in three career appearances (two starts) against Toronto.
And that included his worst outing last year during his rookie season, when Wright allowed eight base runners in 1 1/3 innings on June 19 at Rogers Centre, an appearance that ended with the right-hander pounding his fist into the dugout bench after he was pulled from the game.
Wright struggled against the Blue Jays' fastball-feasting batting order last season, but showed Tuesday that he has learned the value of mixing his pitches.
"Learning from Toronto last year is definitely something I never want to feel again," Wright said. "That was almost, I'm not going to say scared but I was pitching to not give up a run as opposed to being aggressive and being the one taking the aggressiveness to them. That's definitely one thing I learned. … Being aggressive doesn't just mean heaters. It just means throwing strikes, especially early in the count."
But Wright might have been heading to a similar fate Tuesday when he loaded the bases with back-to-back one-out walks in the second inning. He issued those walks to a pair of struggling Blue Jays, first baseman Justin Smoak (.143 average) and catcher Russell Martin (.136).
Wright was determined not to give the Blue Jays a pitch to hit early in at-bats, going to his slider and changeup early in the count, but that also caused him to fall behind. And he opted to walk those hitters instead of letting them beat him.
He was heading for a big inning, but was able to limit the damage. One run came in on Ryan Goins' groundout, but Wright escaped by striking out Kevin Pillar to end the inning.
A two-out two-run double by Troy Tulowitzki in the third inflicted more damage, a letter-high 2-1 fastball that skipped just out of the reach of a diving Joey Rickard in left and bounced to the wall. Right fielder Mark Trumbo helped Wright out of the inning by throwing Tulowitzki out at home on Smoak's ensuing single.
A 23-pitch second inning followed by a 22-pitch third inning had Wright at 62 pitches through three innings, another example of why he has been unable to go deep in games.
After that, Wright faced one batter over the minimum over his final three innings, allowing only a single and a walk. He did that while remaining committed to the slider and changeup.
"He started out great in the first inning, was able to mix in his off-speed," catcher Matt Wieters said. "The innings they scored runs, he wasn't quite able to throw that off-speed for strikes. It's big to be able to make that in-game adjustment for him. It's not just, 'Oh, I don't have it for that inning.' It's, 'I've got to find a way to get back.' And he did that tonight."
Wright faced similar danger last Tuesday in Boston and emerged with mixed results, escaping a bases-loaded jam in the fourth inning but allowing two runs in the fifth — including one on a wild pitch — in the Orioles' 9-5 win. In that outing, he also turned to his changeup and slider to keep hitters off balance.
"That's the same reason you like him," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Mike's firing. He's all pistons and let's go, but I think he's learned that sometimes more's not always better. He still reached back and got a little fastball when he needed it. But it was part of the repertoire instead of something he was doing every time. He two-seamed the ball and four-seamed the ball and spun the ball some."
Kevin Gausman is coming, and an Orioles rotation in need of stability will have a spot for him. After opening the season on the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis, Gausman will make his fourth rehab start Wednesday for Triple-A Norfolk. If he goes deep in that start, he could return to the rotation his next turn.
Combine that with the performance of right-hander Tyler Wilson, who has a 1.13 ERA despite allowing a run in two innings of relief Tuesday, and left-hander Brian Matusz's impending return to the bullpen, and the Orioles staff could get pretty crowded pretty quickly.
"We're trying to win games, so with Kevin coming back, that's only a positive," Wright said. "So I think I'm giving my team a chance to win. If a move has to be made, it has to be made. But I think we're all out here trying to win."