Michael Baumann was handed the ball for the season opener last month at Low-A Delmarva, the headliner in a rotation that has lived up to its billing as one of the best an Orioles affiliate has had in years.
To top a group that, one that features so many highly rated prospects and top picks that even a six-man rotation couldn't fit them all, means a pitcher must fit the same top-of-the-rotation profile as a big leaguer in that position: dependability, mettle and a steadiness that seeps to all the rest of his rotation mates.
On Tuesday at Perdue Stadium, Baumann showed himself capable of all that and then some with six innings of efficient two-hit ball in a 7-1 win over Greenville that meant, at least for a day, the April dominance of the Shorebirds rotation continued into May.
Working primarily off his heavy 91-94 mph fastball, and with little use for his secondary pitches, Baumann fit the scouting report pitching coach Justin Lord laid out before the game.
"He's what they look like in a uniform," Lord said. "He's a big, strong kid. He's got a good arm, and he really challenges hitters with his fastball. He pitches to both sides of the plate. He's got good angle, and he's got command of the game."
"It's my bread and butter, and being able to throw off my fastball is probably my biggest strength," Baumann said.
For most of the start, which came on the heels of an uncharacteristic three-inning outing April 24, the 22-year-old Baumann needed little else to manage things against the Drive. He tried to mix in his slider, a developing pitch that showed little depth and was mostly up in the zone, during a 14-pitch first-inning, when he worked around a weak one-out single with a steady diet of fastballs.
He had walks erased in the second and third inning when catcher Ben Breazeale cut down the runner on stolen-base attempts, then got back on track, allowing just one more single and needing just 32 pitches to face the minimum nine batters before being after six innings.
Greenville put his fastball in the air twice, with seven ground balls on the pitch that he commanded to both sides of the plate, something Baumann said he's found to be an asset in the South Atlantic League.
"I feel like a lot of young hitters don't seem too comfortable, and being able to establish it inside definitely opens up a lot throughout the game," he said.
Baumann throws it out of a smooth delivery, which features almost a full circle in his windup behind his body that indicates there could be more fastball velocity in there in shorter spurts but also challenges his ability to get on top of his secondary offerings. The slider didn't have much depth early, and while he flashed a curveball in the middle innings, his most effective off-speed pitch in this look was his changeup, which replicated his fastball arm speed and was located well at 85-87 mph.
"I'm starting to get a feel for it," Baumann said. "Being able to throw it for a strike when I want to and throw it outside the zone when I want to, it's one of my challenges, but throwing off your fastball helps a lot definitely. I'm just going to try and continue to get a feel for it."
The South Atlantic League might not be the venue where the competition challenges him into elevating the quality of those pitches. He now has 30 strikeouts against 11 walks in 25 innings over five starts with a 1.80 ERA, and his fastball has overmatched the level all month.
What he's established through five starts, which come on the back of 11 short-season outings with a 1.28 ERA in 2017 after the Orioles selected him from the University of Jacksonville in the third round.
"It doesn't matter if he has a five-, six-, seven-inning outing or he throws three innings," Lord said. "He's competing from pitch one to the last, and where he's had success this year is his ability to pitch with his fastball and command it. Specifically pitching in, he's done a really good job of pitching in with his fastball this year. His secondary stuff is getting better every day, and being able to change speeds and keep hitters off his fastball, that's when he has success."