SARASOTA, Fla. — Andrew Politi said he wasn’t too nervous at the start of Orioles spring training six weeks ago.
“You have this long spring ahead, so the nerves aren’t really there,” he said.
Instead, it’s now, with just a few days until the Orioles head to Boston for their opening series of the season, when the nerves start creeping in. Politi, a Rule 5 draft pick, is one of several right-handed relievers competing for a spot in the Orioles’ bullpen.
“The closer it gets, the more the nerves come a little bit,” Politi said Friday. “But I think I’ve done what I had to do, and I think I had a good spring from my understanding. It’s kind of funny. The nerves didn’t really hit until later on when you’ve been throwing the ball well and you start to see your chances raise a little bit.”
The 26-year-old is hoping to become the latest in a long line of Orioles Rule 5 draftees to make the big league club, including some like Anthony Santander and Tyler Wells who became integral parts of the team. The Orioles took Politi, then a minor leaguer with the Boston Red Sox, in the December draft after he posted a 2.34 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A last year.
“It just goes to show, with how many chances they’ve given guys in the past, that they really trust guys,” Politi said. “It’s nice to know they’re not just picking you at random. There’s a reason they pick you, and they trust you. You just got to go out there and show it.”
Politi has allowed six runs on nine hits and three walks in 8 2/3 innings. But seven of his nine outings have been scoreless, with manager Brandon Hyde remarking multiple times about how sharp his curveball looks.
Perhaps his best game of the spring came Wednesday against the Toronto Blue Jays, when Politi retired George Springer, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in order on just 10 pitches.
“He got some weak contact,” Hyde said. “You saw some uncomfortable swings from three of the best hitters in our game. He’s been impressive this whole camp.”
“I’m not really big on who’s hitting,” Politi said. “It’s just me knowing that if I execute my pitches I’ll get good results. It’s just using my pitch mix to the best of my ability and throwing to the blue zones. I know if I can do that I can throw against anyone, it doesn’t matter who it is.”
However, one of his bad outings came in his next appearance against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday, surrendering two runs on three hits and one walk in 2/3 of an inning. Politi knows that bad innings are going to periodically happen as a reliever, but his focus is not letting it spiral into future appearances. After giving up four runs in 2/3 of an inning in early March, Politi went scoreless in his next four outings.
“I think it shows a lot, especially as a relief pitcher, when you have outings like that and you bounce back and put up zeroes,” Politi said. “That’s huge, because in baseball you’re not going to have those perfect outings every time. I think for relievers to have a long career it’s how they bounce back.”
Look at me, I can be center field
On Friday, Hyde made a surprise move to put shortstop Jorge Mateo in center field for two innings. Against the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday, Mateo started at the position and played six innings.
The decision to work Mateo out in center field could be for a couple of reasons. Defensive versatility, as displayed by Terrin Vavra, Adam Frazier, Anthony Santander and others this spring, gives Hyde options during a 162-game season. But it could also give Baltimore the option to use Mateo in a late-inning defensive replacement in the outfield instead of rostering a player like Ryan McKenna, who served in that role in 2022.
“The more flexibility you can create with your roster, the better,” Hyde said. “It’s not like [Mateo] has never been out there before. We just kind of want to give him a look just in case it did happen in the season where we did need some coverage in center field.”
Mateo hasn’t played a major league regular season game in center field since 2021 with the San Diego Padres. But Hyde mentioned that Mateo was used as a defensive replacement in the outfield by the Padres.
Of course, Mateo is mainly a shortstop, starting all but 20 games at the position last season and winning the Fielding Bible Award for the best defensive shortstop in baseball. But in center field Sunday, he looked like a natural, although his only test was a fly ball to left-center field that he easily tracked down.
To the left, to the left
Cionel Pérez, one of the Orioles’ best relievers last season with a 1.40 ERA, will once again be the club’s top left-hander in the bullpen.
But who will be the second?
The answer to that question was perhaps answered shortly after the Orioles’ 4-2 win over the Phillies when the club optioned DL Hall to minor league camp. Hall, the Orioles’ No. 2 pitching prospect, was seemingly in a competition with Keegan Akin for that second lefty spot. Instead of building up Hall as a starter in the major league bullpen, the Orioles will instead do that in Triple-A.
Hyde has said this spring he prefers no fewer than two lefties in the bullpen as well as several relievers capable of going two or three innings. Akin, a converted starter who was excellent in the first half of 2022 but uneven in the second half, served in that role last year.
Akin, who entered Sunday without allowing a run in seven spring innings, believes he’ll be more prepared for a long season in the bullpen after doing it for the first time last year.
“I didn’t know how to prepare for a full seven months down there [in the bullpen],” Akin said. “Like what you’ve got to do to stay ready and battle through those outings that aren’t going your way.”
While he’s mostly been a one-inning reliever in spring training, Akin said he’s been stretched out to three innings on the back fields. That means Akin could be used for matchups against left-handed hitters as well as short- and long-relief outings.
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“That’s what he brought us last year, especially that first half, was a guy that was able to do a lot of different things for us and do it very very well,” Hyde said. “He’s carried that into this spring. The stuff looks even sharper, the velocity’s kind of up. He creates a lot of flexibility in our bullpen. He can be a left-on-left guy, but he can also give us multiple innings as well.”
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Akin said. “If I’m there, that’s all that matters to me.”
Akin allowed a solo homer and a double to lead off his inning Sunday before retiring three straight batters. Also in the win, starting pitcher Kyle Bradish bounced back from his nine-run start Monday to throw five innings of one-run ball.
The first day of spring training brought the news of several injuries Orioles players sustained during the offseason. But for the next month, the Orioles remained relatively healthy, as they did in 2022.
In the past week, however, a couple of veterans expected to make the 26-man roster are dealing with ailments that puts their status in question. Reliever Mychal Givens, who last pitched in a game March 16, threw a live bullpen Sunday morning at Ed Smith Stadium, but it ended poorly. The veteran was frustrated with his sore left knee after 10 pitches, walked off gingerly and threw his glove against the dugout fence. Hyde said Givens’ status for opening day is still up in the air.
Catcher James McCann, who hasn’t played since Monday, has a sore left oblique. He said the injury is “minor” and that he is “day to day.”
“After going through an oblique injury last year, it’s something we’ve treated with a lot of caution just to be sure it doesn’t turn into a two-month absence,” McCann said. “With the process and the rehab, it’s a waiting game. There’s nothing you can do other than wait and let them heal.”