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Orioles rookie Keegan Akin’s latest struggles mean stay in rotation might be brief

Late in spring training, Orioles rookie left-hander Keegan Akin was asked whether he felt he had done enough to break camp with the major league team.

“I don’t know,” Akin responded amid an exhibition slate in which his command often evaded him. “That’s a tough question.”

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Akin nearly echoed that sentiment in the early hours of Wednesday morning after he gave up six runs in three innings of Tuesday night’s rain-delayed 9-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers. In his nine starts this year, Akin’s ERA is 9.57.

The question that prompted his near regurgitation — replacing “tough” with “good” — was whether he’s capitalized on the opportunity the Orioles have provided him. In recent days, manager Brandon Hyde has bemoaned that he’s given inexperienced relievers the chance to make an impression at the major league level, only to see them struggle in those moments. A similar problem has persisted in his rotation, where Akin is among a slew of rookie starters who ranked among the organization’s top prospects entering the year but have struggled to take firm hold of a rotation spot.

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“He’s a guy who lost a year last year of development and made a few starts in the big leagues at the end of the year in a weird season,” said Hyde, who added he was impressed with Akin’s stuff Tuesday. “Like a lot of our guys, it’s been a tough year, and I attribute that to a lost season last year a little bit, not much time in Triple-A, etc.”

Tuesday’s outing could, at least temporarily, be Akin’s last as a starter. Fellow rookie Bruce Zimmermann threw five hitless innings in a final rehab start with Triple-A Norfolk; top prospect Adley Rutschman was behind the plate, going 2-for-4 with a double and RBI single in his Triple-A debut. After Akin struggled with his command in spring training, Zimmermann pitched his way into his rotation spot. Akin’s performance could allow Zimmermann to do so again.

Akin, Zimmermann and right-hander Dean Kremer got their first taste of the majors at the end of last season, with each showing that they could be contributors to an Orioles team often starved for pitching in Hyde’s tenure. Zimmermann has largely done so, but he’s also missed the past two months with left bicep tendinitis.

Kremer, who allowed no more than one run in his of his first three major league starts, posted an 8.08 ERA over his next 13. The Orioles sent him to Norfolk after he walked five while recording one out in a late June start against the Toronto Blue Jays. In nine appearances for the Tides, he has a 6.88 ERA, with a walk rate that isn’t greatly improved from his major league mark.

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The Orioles hoped Akin and Kremer would play key roles in their 2021 rotation; unlike the latter, Akin has a full year of Triple-A experience, spending the season there in 2019. He was the first debutant in the Orioles’ shortened 2020 season, but he was also the only of those three rookie starters to not break camp with the club. An open rotation spot didn’t go to him because of a kitchen incident that led to stitches in his pitching hand. Last month, he missed more than a week after being put on the COVID-19 injured list for reasons neither he nor the Orioles explained; players are not required to test positive to receive that designation.

Akin returned with two scoreless relief appearances spanning 3 ⅓ innings before replacing Alexander Wells, another rookie left-hander, in the rotation. He soon showed why he might not be long for the role. After retiring the first five Tigers, he managed only four outs over the next 12 batters.

“Obviously not happy with it,” Akin said. “Just got to get better. Execute pitches is kind of the theme of this one. Just get better and learn from it and do it all over again in five days and go from there.”

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