Before his brilliant Double-A debut Tuesday, left-hander DL Hall recalled how he and other Orioles prospects spent parts of minor league spring training dreaming of days like it.
“There’s nothing like that game-time adrenaline,” Hall said Monday. “It’s unmatched.”
Orioles minor leaguers had waited more than a year and a half for that feeling to come back. After the coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 minor league season, Tuesday marked the first time in nearly 600 days prospects took the field for an official game.
“I can’t even imagine going a full year without playing,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “I think back to as a player, or as a coach, in the minor leagues, not playing for a full year, what those guys went through, how mentally tough that must’ve been to just work out and not play games. Extremely challenging, so I’m sure there’s a lot of very, very happy people today to get back on the field and play against a different uniform. Something you’re used to your whole life, and all of a sudden, it gets taken away from you for a year. Extremely challenging. Happy to see those guys playing for sure.”
Many of the Orioles’ top prospects took advantage of the return to play. Hall, Baltimore’s No. 3 prospect according to Baseball America, immediately showed the byproducts of a year spent working to improve by striking out 10 batters in 4 ⅓ scoreless innings. Grayson Rodriguez ranks one spot ahead of Hall on the prospect list and fell narrowly short of surpassing him on the mound, striking out five in four shutout frames for High-A Aberdeen. The duo tends to trash talk each other after good outings, so some of that was likely slung Tuesday night, as well.
“We’ll always have something to say to each other to bring each back down to Earth,” Hall said.
Rodriguez and Hall, who trail only 2019 first overall pick Adley Rutschman among the Orioles’ top prospects, represent two of the organization’s collection of pitchers who will have to adjust from no in-game innings to a full season of them.
“Every single pitcher, we’re going to be watching carefully and monitoring,” director of player development Matt Blood said. “This is a little bit of an unprecedented situation. The roster sizes are larger. We fill have large numbers of pitchers on each roster, so we will be monitoring it, but also, we want these guys to get their work in. It’s a little bit of a double-edged sword.”
Some pitchers, including Hall and Rodriguez, were able to participate at the team’s alternate training site in Bowie last year, a camp that hosted reserves for the major league team as well as a handful of prospects. Others were forced to find what they could in their hometowns to simulate a season, though the Orioles’ development staff provided players with plans and kept in contact.
“The biggest thing is just playing baseball again,” Double-A manager Buck Britton said. “A lot of these guys missed a lot of time last year. Some guys were able to go to that alternate site, but the majority of the guys we have on this club, they didn’t get to play, so there’s a lot of excitement from everybody. I think we’re just happy and blessed to be in this spot. Hopefully, we can all stay healthy and get through a full season.”
Because of last year’s shutdown, Tuesday marked some players’ professional debuts. Members of Baltimore’s 2020 draft class occupied three of the top four spots in Low-A Delmarva’s opening lineup. The exception, No. 6 prospect Gunnar Henderson, homered to the opposite field in his first at-bat of the season out of the Shorebirds’ three spot.
Tuesday marked only the beginning. After an absense of more than a year, the minor leagues are back.
“We’ve got a bunch of new players who really haven’t had a chance to play in the Orioles’ system,” Blood said. “We’ve got a bunch of new coaches who haven’t really had a chance to coach in a season, and it’s been a long time coming.
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“Everybody wants to get out there and to play and to compete, so I think just about every single person is just thrilled that we’re getting this opportunity.”