All that time Keegan Akin spent toiling last summer at Triple-A Norfolk as the Orioles papered over the holes in their rotation was so the young left-hander could be a long-term solution, not a quick fix.
Every time he turns in a performance like Wednesday night’s masterful start against the Atlanta Braves, a 5-1 Orioles win, makes all that time seem worthwhile.
Akin rebounded from a dud Friday against the New York Yankees in which he didn’t finish the first inning with one of the Orioles' best starts of the season. He struck out a career-high nine Braves, including six straight from the first to third innings. His nine strikeouts and 19 swinging strikes Wednesday were the most for an Orioles pitcher in 2020.
“I just love the aggressiveness in his attack," manager Brandon Hyde said. “He attacks hitters, he trusts his fastball. You saw a lot of fastballs thrown by guys tonight. I think the secondary stuff is improving. That’s a really good lineup to go five innings scoreless against — a lot of veteran hitters and a lot of really talented young players also. To do what he did was impressive.”
After two initial relief appearances to begin his major league career, Akin has made four starts and not allowed an earned run in three of them. With a swing-and-miss fastball and an effective slider and changeup, he gave the Orioles (22-27) a series win over a playoff-bound team in what’s been a challenging September.
He had to strand two batters thanks to a walk and a single in the first inning, but did so with a strikeout of Travis d’Arnaud that started his streak. Akin struck out the side in the second inning and the first two batters of the third before Freddie Freeman lined out to end the inning.
The strikeouts came so quickly that they all blended together for Akin. He couldn’t remember some of them after the game. But as a pitcher who has always worked quickly, Akin had little reason to stop and savor them as he was in a groove.
“I’m a big tempo guy on the mound,” he said. “When I get in a rhythm, I just like to stay in it and go. Just go, go, go. I didn’t know I struck out six in a row ... You just kind of zone in and it’s a blur, really. You just get locked in and you go.”
Many of the swinging strikes came on his fastball, but Akin also got a pair of strikeouts on sliders that he buried to right-handed hitters. On a three-pitch strikeout of Austin Riley in the second, he began it with a swinging strike at a changeup away, then located a called-strike fastball inside, then got him to chase a slider in the dirt.
Hyde said the progress of Akin’s slider and changeup, which were the focus last summer at Norfolk and this season before the rookie’s debut, is apparent.
“More consistent — really working on repeating his delivery,” Hyde said. “I think at times he would give it away when he was throwing off-speed, but it’s a very, very repeatable delivery now. He’s throwing his changeup with good arm speed, getting some nice dive and good depth out of that pitch. I just think he’s gaining confidence as he’s continuing to pitch up here.”
Once Akin’s strikeout streak ended, the Orioles offense began to cook against returning Braves left-hander Cole Hamels, who was starting for the first time this season. Hanser Alberto had a run-scoring double, José Iglesias drove in a run with a groundout, and Ryan Mountcastle had a sacrifice fly to cobble together a lead.
Combined with a two-run double by Renato Núñez in the sixth inning, the Orioles hit the magic five-run number that seems to be a prerequisite for a victory.
Akin’s performance, plus effective relief from the new crop of late-inning arms in Dillon Tate, Hunter Harvey, Tanner Scott and Cesar Valdéz, meant far less would have sufficed. The only run Atlanta scored was on a balk by Tate in the sixth inning.
Iglesias leaves game
Iglesias and Austin Hays had two hits apiece, but Iglesias was hit on the lower leg with a pitch in his at-bat to lead off the eighth inning and did not return.
“He’s going to get a precautionary X-ray on his shin,” Hyde said. “He wanted to stay in the game. That’s always a good sign. We are going to get a precautionary just in case.”
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The veteran shortstop was signed for his defense in the offseason, but has been an offensive producer for the Orioles. His two hits raised his average to .381, and the possibility of him being eligible for the batting title is contingent on him playing every game the rest of the season after he missed time earlier this year with a quadriceps injury.