Pressure is a privilege, or so goes one of the phrases known as the Orioles’ minor league standard operating procedure as seen on the T-shirts worn during batting practice at the Bowie Baysox’s Prince George’s Stadium.
To the top prospects at the Orioles’ Double-A affiliate — and there are plenty of them — that much was clear Tuesday night.
So excited were the Orioles fans who are completely sold on the “elite talent pipeline” promised by general manager Mike Elias that now runs through their backyard and is nearing Camden Yards that they marked the Double-A home debut of celebrated pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez with a gimmick: gas cans.
This Orioles rebuild has dragged on long enough where, even though they’re in the minor leagues and are likely not going to make the big leagues for another year, tomorrow’s stars are also today’s stars. The high-flying Baysox, now led by Rodriguez and top prospect Adley Rutschman, are uniquely placed to both deserve that attention and love every second of it.
“I’ve always said that there’s always about as much pressure on yourself as you put on,” Rodriguez said. “Tonight, really, there was a lot of fans there and everything and the whole gas can deal, that was all built up. … If anything, it was more of a positive tonight.”
Manager Buck Britton, pointing to the slogan on his shirt, said his players have “taken right to that.”
“They know the eyes are on them,” Britton said. “What better place to be in the minor leagues than everybody paying attention to them? These guys are excited every day. The prospect list is basically here, right?”
Perhaps seeing a crowd of 4,963 in person didn’t mean as much as the constant buzz around the Orioles’ top prospects that the players soak in on social media every day. That’s where Rodriguez first saw the groundswell of fans who planned to receive the Baysox’s blessing to bring new, unused gas cans to the ballpark to celebrate the flamethrower’s first start at Bowie. Rodriguez said it was a lot of fun.
“Hype got taken to a new level with this new gas can thing that’s going on here,” Britton said. “I think social media has taken off, really, so the hype is worldwide now, if you will. There’s a lot of excitement going on in the minor leagues. This is where the future is.”
In some senses, that begins with players like Rodriguez. After beginning the season at High-A Aberdeen and being promoted to Bowie after a dominant May, Rodriguez is one of several Orioles prospects who is contributing to the rising tide of expectations about potential results from the team’s long-term rebuilding plan. The star-studded battery he forms with catcher Rutschman earned roars during pregame introductions.
Once Rodriguez took the mound, and through his 4 ⅔ innings, it seems the only expectations he didn’t meet were his own. A murmur went through the park every time the stadium radar gun registered 100 mph — and it did often — though his true velocity was in the 96-99 mph range, with some 100-mph fastballs mixed in. He lamented the foul ball wars and deep counts he ended up in after getting ahead 0-2 at times, and left allowing two runs in on four hits with a pair of walks and six strikeouts.
“Definitely not what I had in mind,” Rodriguez said, though his electric fastball and the overall pitch mix that pitching coach Justin Ramsey called “upper-echelon stuff” was certainly all anyone came to see. They will have left satisfied, even having seen the first start in eight this year during which opponents scored more than once on Rodriguez.
That’s part of how in the past month he climbed to No. 11 overall in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list, making him the game’s best pitching prospect in the publication’s estimation. Ramsey, who worked with Rodriguez at Low-A Delmarva in 2019, said “a lot of things” go into him being a special pitcher.
“Obviously the stuff, when you watch him, you know it’s really good,” he said. “There’s velocity, there’s breaking balls. There’s changeups. It’s his work ethic. He shows up with a plan, he knows what he wants to do. He studies. He does everything you can ask for a guy. What’s most impressive is he’s just a great person. You wouldn’t know that he’s a first-rounder. You wouldn’t know that he’s a top prospect. All the things you want in that guy, they’re all positives.”
Britton said when he’s asked to think of comparisons, he can’t.
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“The poise this kid has, the maturity this kid has — the stuff is electric,” Britton said. “We know that. But just the competitor that he is is impressive, and for him to be as young as he is and do the things that he does, he’s a special right-handed arm coming here quick.”
It won’t surprise anyone who knows Rodriguez that he wasn’t pleased with what he did Tuesday, and for Orioles fans who made the trip expecting an exhibition of unimpeachable talent, it wasn’t the night for that. Rutschman grounded into a 1-2-3, bases-loaded double play, and unloaded a throw to second on a stolen base attempt during which no one covered the bag.
Anyone who wades into Twitter will have also seen the underside of doing what the scouts call big-game hunting and going to a minor league park just to see top prospects. Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a group that brings attention to the low pay of minor leaguers and aims to improve it, tweeted Tuesday evening that Bowie players were planning to sleep in their cars after the team stopped providing housing Wednesday.
Bowie’s general manager clarified to a concerned fan that the players were getting a discounted hotel rate and could share rooms as the long-standing minor league tradition of host families was started back up after pandemic-related issues shut that down for the first six weeks of the season. Advocates for Minor Leaguers later said that team officials informed Bowie players after the game that they will be able to obtain hotel rooms for roughly 40% of their homestand paycheck, and that the players have decided to eat that cost.
Rodriguez, who in years past has lived in a camper he bought to avoid such housing headaches, wasn’t much overshadowed by whatever pall that cast. Not long ago, Bowie would fill up more than usual for the likes of fellow pitchers Dylan Bundy or Kevin Gausman. DL Hall will deservedly get that treatment soon.
And when success comes for the Baysox, the end goal of making it to Baltimore and ultimately helping the Orioles win again is evident.
“Being close to Baltimore, obviously that’s the goal,” Rodriguez said. “In a way, we’re close. But there’s still a lot of work left to do.”