ABERDEEN — It took 14 pitches. The fastballs, curveballs and changeups whistled by bats. One, two, three the batters came to the plate and left again, with nothing to show for their first opportunity against left-hander DL Hall.
That’s how Hall envisioned his first inning unfolding Friday, when he took the mound for High-A Aberdeen — his first start for an Orioles affiliate since suffering a season-ending stress reaction in his elbow last June. He wanted to make a statement, so he fizzed fastballs by hitters and made them look silly with his off-speed offerings. And it led to three straight strikeouts in the opening frame.
“I wanted everyone to know that I’m back and I’m coming,” Hall told The Baltimore Sun.
Across his four innings for the IronBirds, that’s what Hall displayed. His fastball, the one that touches triple digits when needed, came as advertised. But his changeup made the biggest improvement since the last time he took the mound, and he rotated it in frequently during his scoreless outing. The 23-year-old allowed two hits and struck out six, an apt announcement if there ever was one.
Just minutes after 7 p.m., Hall emerged from the IronBirds dugout, skipped over the first base line and clicked his heels in midair on his way to the mound. Around the same time, about 40 miles down Interstate 95, right-hander Kyle Bradish was doing the same for the Orioles.
There’s a symmetry to them — one top prospect making his major league debut while another begins a path back from injury, hoping to be featured in Baltimore before long.
Bradish didn’t have the run support from the Orioles, saddled with a loss to the Boston Red Sox after allowing two earned runs in six innings. Three levels below in the Orioles’ organization, the hardest contact off Hall was immediately wiped out with a double play. It was a strong showing at the same time for two of Baltimore’s top pitching prospects, a sign of what the immediate and near future can hold at Camden Yards, once prospects such as Bradish and Hall arrive in force.
While Bradish arrived as a product of injuries to left-hander John Means and right-hander Chris Ellis, there’s still a way to go for Hall, who’s overcoming his own injury. But to be on the path at all? That gives Hall something to cherish.
“It’s an unreal feeling. It’s hard to describe,” Hall said. “Not being on the mound for close to 11 months in a real game, it was so surreal and I’m just thankful to be able to be back out there.”
Hall threw 54 pitches before throwing another simulated inning in the bullpen. He’s built up to four-plus-one, and he expects to remain at that level for the next few weeks before building up his length further.
If there’s any debate around Hall, it’s whether his future is in the bullpen or the starting rotation. The southpaw, who ranks as Baseball America’s No. 3 prospect in Baltimore’s pipeline, has the high-powered fastball that can thrive in a relief role.
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But he showed poise Friday, only ramping up his fastball in select counts. Otherwise, Hall focused on placement more, and his curveball and improved changeup featured frequently. That’s the ideal setup so far — he’s only just coming back from injury; overdoing it in High-A ball would be imprudent.
“Most of all, just trying to be healthy,” Hall said. “That was my main focus. Just go out there, get my work in and try not to focus too much on results.”
Still, the results were hard not to focus on, especially at the end of a lengthy road to recovery. He featured briefly in spring training, hurling his fastball 100 mph, before staying in Florida for an extended spring.
That prolonged time away from an affiliate, away from the climb toward the majors, played on his mind. He envisioned moments like Friday over and over, first when he left Florida and again when he threw his first bullpen in Aberdeen.
He marked the occasion with three strikeouts in the first en route to six overall, the kind of display that announced to those in Aberdeen and in Baltimore and beyond that Hall was on his way.
“That’s what I was aiming for,” Hall said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
Then he went out and did it.