WASHINGTON — Before the game, there were nerves. After, they were replaced by grins.
In between, Orioles prospects Ryan Mountcastle and Alex Wells got to play in Sunday’s Major League Baseball All-Star Futures Game, a showcase game that solidified to the pair of 21-year-olds that their standing among the game’s brightest young stars was earned.
“It was amazing,” Mountcastle, whose United States team won, 10-6, said. “That's probably as close as you can get to a big league game, big league atmosphere. I had a great time. … It means a lot just to be with some of these guys, and to be thought of highly like this. It's such an honor.”
Neither of the Orioles representatives started, but Mountcastle came off the bench to hit for designated hitter Keston Hiura on the US team with two outs in the fifth inning. To that point, there had been four home runs, and he wanted in on the action — striking out on four pitches, three of them big swings.
“Everybody's knocking them out,” Mountcastle said, grinning. “I just tried to. The second at-bat, I calmed down, but the first one, I tried to do a little too much. But I had a good time.”
He flew out in his second at-bat to finish 0-for-2.
Wells, from Australia, entered for the World team just after Mountcastle struck out. He, too, had sat and watched the ball fly out of Nationals Park — there were eight home runs hit in the game — and was a bit concerned.
“I was a little nervous coming into the game, actually, seeing the ball fly like that,” Wells said. “But I stuck to my gameplan, got in there and threw strikes and kept the ball down.”
Padres outfielder Buddy Reed (Finksburg) worked the count full off Wells before flying out to the left-field wall. Wells then got catcher Andrew Knizner looking at a 91 mph fastball for a strikeout before leaving the game.
Unlike many of the pitchers selected for Sunday’s game, Wells doesn’t possess the premium, high-end velocity that evaluators drool over. Instead he dots a fastball that was between 88-91 mph on Sunday, and locates a changeup and curveball well to keep hitters off balance. It meant a lot to him to succeed on this stage.
“It gives me a lot of confidence, knowing that my pitches play in stadiums like this, and especially against the quality of hitters we faced today,” Wells said. “It's just confidence.”
Before Sunday’s game, each reflected on the last year or so that brought them to the Futures Game. For all the struggles, the reward was sweet.
"It's tough for it to sink in right now, but being around these guys — we have so much talent in here," Mountcastle said. "It's a blessing to be here, and meeting some of the guys has been pretty cool."
"It's surreal," Wells said. "It hasn't really sunk quite in yet, but I'm sure it will when I get out there and get ready to pitch. It's an awesome experience to be able to represent Australia and the Orioles. It's fun. I'm looking forward to getting out there."
Wells pitched in the Futures Game looking to correct what he called a "pretty rough" run of starts since the Carolina League All-Star Game, where he represented the High-A Frederick Keys. Wells is 3-6 with a 4.13 ERA in 85 innings as the jump in level from his dominance at Low-A Delmarva that earned him the Orioles' Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year award has tested him a bit.
"It's been a bit of a challenge," Wells said. "Definitely, going up a new level has a new set of new challenges, facing new hitters, facing older guys. ... Hopefully, I'll get back and get the ball rolling."
He responded to that by finding something in his midweek bullpen that fixed a mechanical issue in his lower half during his windup, and decided the stage wouldn’t be too big to try it here for the first time in a game.
“I trusted it,” Wells said. “I threw a bullpen a couple days ago, worked on it there, and felt comfortable. I said, ‘Why not? Might as well use it in today's game.’”
He said he hopes it carries him to a strong rest of the season for Frederick.
Mountcastle doesn't have anything like that to deal with in the present — he just lost a 13-game hitting streak and is batting .314 with an .869 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 23 extra-base hits for Double-A Bowie.
It's much better than his first go-around there last year, when after tearing up the Carolina League, Mountcastle was challenged with a Double-A assignment at age 20 and had to change from shortstop to third base at the same time.
He hit .222 in 39 games and continued his transition in the Arizona Fall League. Once a fractured wrist suffered in a spring training game healed, he was ready to turn that around and has this summer.
"Bowie last year, it was the end of the year," Mountcastle said. "Everybody gets a little tired toward the end of the year. That had a little bit to do with it, but I'm just getting my pitch to hit this year and pitch selection and putting good swings on the ball."
With 50 players suiting up between the two clubs Sunday and some teams not getting to send two representatives at all, Wells and Mountcastle know how fortunate they are to be in such a group. Each looked forward to showing they belong Sunday.
"It means a lot to be here, for the Orioles to send me here and pick me like this," Mountcastle said. "It's such an honor. I couldn't have asked for a better time."