TORONTO — Orioles right-hander David Hess arrived at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on Monday afternoon to hear a message from manager Brandon Hyde that the short-handed pitching staff would "ride me out a little bit."
"I told him I'd give him eight strong if he'd let me," Hess said. "I tried to live up to my end, and like I said, if he let me..."
Hyde did not. Instead, he pulled Hess in the seventh inning of a no-hit bid that the Orioles led 6-0 at the time, only to cling to a 6-5 win to improve to 3-1.
He cited the fact that the 25-year-old right-hander was on short rest after he pitched two relief innings on Thursday’s Opening Day, and at 82 pitches Monday had gone well beyond where the Orioles felt comfortable for him.
"It was a tough game," Hyde said. "We had a pitch count for our starter and I had three guys that I felt comfortable pitching in the ballgame. For David to go beyond that, and obviously then some, was incredible. But that was a terrible walk [to the mound]. I hated to do it, but for David's health and one of hopefully 30-plus starts, it was the right thing to do."
"I could tell that he really was fighting against himself a little bit, because I think the excitement was there," Hess said. "But that's a lot of respect towards him, just having that mindset and that thought process, that means a lot to me."
In making what he thought was the responsible decision for his young starter's long-term health, Hyde then had to battle with the idea that it wasn't the right decision that night. Reliever Pedro Araujo, in place of Hess, surrendered a walk then saw the no-hitter end with a two-run home run, and Mike Wright allowed a home run in the eighth to make it a three-run game.
Left-hander Richard Bleier struggled for a second straight outing, allowing two runs in the ninth, but stranded the tying run at third for his first career save.
It was all the Orioles' three available relievers could do to ensure that Hyde didn't have to live with his decision leading to a loss, even if Hess, who struck out a career-high eight batters, might not have had the pitch count to chase a no-hitter from that point in the seventh, even in July.
But that it was a decision at all was because Hess was masterful.
"That's an exciting game, to say the least," Hess said.
The Orioles brought their hitting boots north of the border, at least for the first inning, and were leading 4-0 before Hess even got to the mound. Dwight Smith Jr., the former Blue Jay facing the team that designated him for assignment a month ago, singled and scored on a one-out home run by Jonathan Villar, his first of the season.
A pair of tack-on runs came in the form of a bases-loaded walk for Chris Davis and a wild pitch with Jesús Sucre at the plate.
That was all Hess would need, though the Orioles scored in the second inning on a sacrifice fly by Trey Mancini and in the seventh on his second home run of the season.
Otherwise, it was all Hess. He got the Orioles back in the dugout with a nine-pitch first inning, and needed just seven pitches to get through the seventh cleanly. With one out in the third inning, Mancini made one of those plays that define such memorable pitching performances by sliding in from right field to catch a fly ball by Danny Jansen and keep the no-hit bid intact.
Hess struck out six of the next eight batters after he surrendered a leadoff walk of Billy McKinney to open the fourth inning, running his fastball up to 95 mph and blowing it past the Blue Jays in the top half of the strike zone.
That walk, he said, brought him to another level.
"Something clicked in my head, and I just had to really go into another gear to prevent him from scoring," Hess said. "I came in and I told [pitching coach Doug Brocail], I think that that was the best thing for me right now, because I feel like I just hit that extra gear. It was a lot of fun."
The at-bats got longer as the game went on, and Araujo started warming up in the bottom of the sixth after Mancini's home run. Hess needed eight pitches to get Brandon Drury to sting a line-drive out right at shortstop Richie Martin, and at 82 pitches, Hyde came out to the dugout and explained to Hess what was going on before singling for the Rule 5 reliever.
Hess said he was "shocked," because his pitch-count was "decently low."
"I didn't know what to expect," Hyde said. "I didn't know if I was going to get a reaction, what kind of reaction he was going to give, but the pro that he is, he understood and told me he still feels good. I said I know you do, I don't want to take you out also. But it's the right thing to do, and he understood it. That's how it went."
The paltry crowd in Toronto wasn't impressed, though Hyde came to the decision consistently. He said during spring training that he didn't care one way or another if an Orioles pitcher got a complete game this season, only that they were well taken-care of.
"But I have appreciation for it," Hyde said. "If I was sitting there watching, I'd probably want to have the guy stay in there also, because I know how cool it is to see it. I've been in the dugout for two of them [by former Orioles pitcher Jake Arrieta with the Chicago Cubs], so yeah, it wasn't fun for anybody."
Hess, who spent the whole spring competing for a rotation spot, pitched his final spring tune-up March 22 with 58 pitches thrown, and was then used to cover two relief innings Opening Day on March 28, throwing 42 pitches that day. Hyde said Hess had reached 85 pitches twice in spring, possibly during in-game bullpen sessions after he left, and that even 82 pitches Monday was "a little bit beyond the comfort level."
Considering the early point in the season, extending a pitcher that far on three day's rest seems to have been judged by Hyde as too much to ask of a pitcher who spent the second half markedly improving from his early-season struggles.
In his first 10 major league starts, Hess had a 6.44 ERA and a 1.570 WHIP, and in the ensuing 10 including Monday, he has a 2.88 ERA and a 1.083 WHIP. With the Orioles down a starting pitcher thanks to Alex Cobb's groin injury, and with two bullpen games deployed in the first six, counting Wednesday's scheduled start for Nate Karns, Hess takes on an unusual importance to the Orioles rotation as the team tries to navigate an American League East-heavy schedule in April.
Hess had the perspective to understand what the reasoning was behind Hyde's decision.
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"I think the biggest thing [I learned] is that he cares about us a lot," Hess said. "I mean, it's hard as a player and I'm sure harder as a manager to go out there and have to pull a guy for either the thought process of keeping his healthy or his well-being. I have a ton of respect for him in the short time we've been together, because he makes the decisions that are based on the longevity of the player. He's not thinking what's good right now, but he's really thinking ahead and wants to take care of us. Like I said, the biggest thing is he really cares about each individual guy in this clubhouse and us as a team, and that really shows."