Spenser Watkins fought back tears last week describing the meaning of the long-awaited major league call-up he earned from the Orioles.
Judging by his first major league start, he might be worth keeping around.
The 28-year-old Watkins gave manager Brandon Hyde and the Orioles their best start in weeks to help secure a 7-5 win over the Toronto Blue Jays before 7,388 fans at Camden Yards Tuesday. Pedro Severino, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander each hit home runs and kicked off the team’s final homestand before the All-Star break with a rare home win that got closer than it needed to late.
“I thought he threw with no fear,” Hyde said. “I thought he did a great job, especially in his first ever [start]. We haven’t gone five innings very often, and so to see a starter go five innings was fantastic. So pleased with how he competed and stuff that he showed.”
It didn’t always look fated to go so well for Watkins, who signed as a minor league free agent this winter after sticking around for seven seasons in the Detroit Tigers organization after he was a 30th-round pick from Division II Western Oregon in 2014.
He walked leadoff man Marcus Semien, who went to third on a single by Bo Bichette and scored on a sacrifice fly by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. three batters into the game. But from there, Watkins kept Toronto quiet.
Watkins allowed a baserunner in every inning, but none got past first base. He pitched five innings of three-hit, one-run ball with three walks and two strikeouts. The last time an Orioles starter went at least five innings and allowed one run or fewer was fellow rookie Keegan Akin on June 4. Orioles starters hadn’t completed five innings in their last eight games.
“Having that opportunity to be relied on, to go out and eat some innings, is a huge thing,” Watkins said. “That’s something I’ve prided myself on in my entire career, being able to eat innings, go deep into ballgames, give my team a really good chance to win. To be kind of blessed with that opportunity is massive for me.”
Before the game, Hyde quipped that nights like Tuesday where he didn’t know what to expect from his starter had “happened a few times this year.” Watkins pitched a scoreless inning of relief Friday against the Los Angeles Angels, an outing he said helped calm his nerves for Tuesday’s start.
But that was the extent of Hyde’s familiarity with him, outside a few half-looks when Watkins came to major league spring training from minor league camp.
“Spenser is thought very highly of by our pro scouting people, and our pitching guys really like his stuff,” Hyde said.
A few hours later, with his first major league win under his belt, Watkins had done enough to earn more starts in the Orioles rotation.
“We’re going to run him out there his next time out,” Hyde said. “We’re going to give him an opportunity to start for us. We’re a little short in the rotation and I’m going to give him an opportunity. [John] Means is going to come back here pretty soon, but there’s a lot of season left and we’re going to need people to be able to pitch innings for us. Let’s hope Spenser can continue to throw like that.”
Watkins proved to be the only Orioles pitcher to keep the Blue Jays in the ballpark. Toronto added late solo home runs by Randal Grichuk off Dillon Tate in the seventh inning and Guerrero off Tanner Scott in the eighth, then cut the deficit to 7-5 with a two-run home run by Lourdes Gurriel Jr. off Tyler Wells in the ninth.
Homers for the home team
When Watkins passed the game off to the bullpen, he did so with a comfortable lead. Severino hit a two-run home run in the fourth inning, then All-Star Mullins and Santander hit home runs of their own in a five-run fifth inning to help build a 7-1 lead.
Mullins’ home run was his team-high 16th of the year, while Santander’s landed on Eutaw Street and was the 50th all-time by an Orioles player.
Both Hyde and Santander hope the big swing is a sign of things to come as the reigning Most Valuable Oriole slowly finds his form while dealing with a lingering ankle sprain.
“Oh man, big swing,” Hyde said. “They’ve been elevating fastballs on him, and he’s been a little bit late and underneath. For him to be on time with one and hit it like that. … I think Tony’s coming. I give him a ton of credit. This guy has been grinding for a couple months now, playing a little bit banged up. I need to get him off his feet a little bit, but for him to be short to the baseball right there and get on an elevated fastball — a good elevated fastball — and do what he did, that’s a good thing for his confidence.”
Around the horn
Ravens legend Jonathan Ogden threw out the first pitch before Tuesday’s game. … Orioles strength and conditioning coach Joe Hogarty was named to the American League staff for next week’s MLB All-Star Game. … Left-hander John Means will have another rehab start Friday in Bowie. … Right-hander Travis Lakins Sr. had surgery to repair a recurrent olecranon stress fracture in his right elbow Tuesday, the team announced. Hyde said he could “possibly” be ready for spring training. ... Third baseman Maikel Franco (ankle) was in the original lineup, but was scratched after Hyde said he was “too sore” to play.