FORT MYERS, Fla. — For the second straight start, Grayson Rodriguez looked like a major league-caliber starter the first time through the order before struggling the second time through.
Rodriguez, the Orioles’ top pitching prospect and a candidate for the starting rotation, allowed a two-run homer in the third inning and then unraveled in the fourth in a Grapefruit League game against the Boston Red Sox on Saturday. The start was similar to his previous outing, also against Boston, in which the 23-year-old retired nine of the first 10 batters with six strikeouts before allowing five straight to reach base.
“Obviously, I don’t enjoy them,” Rodriguez said of the tough outings. “But that’s been the key. It’s all learning experience, and for it to happen in spring training is better than during the regular season.”
In the fourth inning, Rodriguez walked the leadoff batter and then got a comebacker that should have been a double play. But Rodriguez delivered a short throw to the bag that shortstop Jorge Mateo couldn’t corral. Rodriguez induced a double play on the next batter, but his error proved costly. He threw a wild pitch to allow a run, issued his second walk of the frame and allowed an RBI double before getting pulled.
“The first two innings he was really sharp,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We saw overpowering stuff.”
“I think the fourth inning he tired a little bit,” Hyde added. “You saw the changeup go to the backstop and some misses there. It looked like it was fatigue in that fourth inning.”
Rodriguez ended the day allowing six hits and five runs (two earned) in 3 2/3 innings with two walks and three strikeouts. Over his past two starts, Rodriguez has given up 10 hits and nine runs (six earned) in 6 2/3 innings.
“For me, he had so many positives in his first couple innings, and then to have that rough inning is probably not a bad thing for him,” said James McCann, who caught Rodriguez on Saturday. “He can look back at the positives and understand what he did well and then take from the rough inning what he needs to be able to make the adjustment and not let that happen in a game that matters.”
Rodriguez struggled most on Saturday with the top three batters in Boston’s lineup — starters Christian Arroyo, Rafael Devers and Adam Duvall.
“We kind of had a plan, kind of reading their swings from the first time through,” Rodriguez said. “Still, we missed some pitches and the major league guys hit ’em. That’s just kind of the takeaway from it.”
Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias has repeatedly said he wants Rodriguez to break camp in the rotation. Hyde reiterated that sentiment Saturday morning, saying the club is giving him “every opportunity” to be in the rotation on opening day.
“I’m not worried,” Hyde said about whether Rodriguez is feeling pressure to make the team. “I think it’s very normal for a young player to feel that way, but he’s got great stuff. He’s going to be a really good starter in this league for a long time. I just want to see him kind of relax and do well these last couple starts.”
McCann said it’s “above my pay grade” to determine whether the 6-foot-5 right-hander should open the season in the big leagues.
“But stuff-wise,” he said, “no doubt he’s ready.”
Also in the Orioles’ 9-6 loss, first baseman Ryan O’Hearn returned after missing a week with a knee injury and went 0-for-2. Pitcher Austin Voth, one of nine remaining pitchers vying for a spot in the Orioles’ opening day rotation, worked the final three innings, allowing five hits and four runs (one earned) with no walks and six strikeouts.
Colton Cowser, the organizations’ top outfield prospect, followed up his 476-foot home run Friday with an RBI single and a walk in his two plate appearances off the bench. Heston Kjerstad kept up his hot camp with an RBI double.
One of the several competitions in camp is for the outfield spots behind starters Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander.
Kyle Stowers and Ryan McKenna might have inside track, with the former posting a .724 OPS in 34 games down the stretch last year and the latter serving in the pinch-runner/defensive replacement role.
But Daz Cameron made his case for one of those spots this week with his bat, flashing the power that once made him considered for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. The 26-year-old opened his week Monday with an RBI double against the Detroit Tigers and ended it Friday with a solo home run against the Minnesota Twins. His homer — hit 101.7 mph and 386 feet — was sandwiched between blasts from Jordan Westburg and Colton Cowser for back-to-back-to-back home runs.
“My swing is flourishing, and the more time goes on my swing will keep taking care of itself,” Cameron said. “I’m glad to kind of see some results early.”
However, his most impressive performance perhaps came on one of the Orioles’ back fields Thursday. Cameron was one of several batters facing DL Hall in the pitching prospect’s simulated game and was the only one to hit the ball hard. In his three at-bats against Hall, Cameron hit a ground ball in the hole, a fly ball off the left field fence and a frozen rope to right-center field.
“Daz continues to get better as he’s getting more at-bats,” Hyde said. “He’s taking better swings. He’s been swinging the bat well the last week or so.”
Cameron, who was drafted 37th overall in 2015 by Houston when Elias was with the Astros, appeared in 73 games with nine stolen bases and a .201 batting average with the Tigers the past three seasons.
“The ability to run, be able to be athletic and to cover three spots in the outfield is going to be big,” Hyde said.
Bautista nearing full strength
Closer Félix Bautista cleared a significant milestone Friday — one that really only applies to him and about a dozen other big league pitchers.
In his second outing this spring, Bautista touched 100 mph on the penultimate pitch of his inning. His 100.1 mph fastball blew past Twins hitter Matt Wallner, and he then slammed on the brakes with an 89.8 mph splitter for the strikeout.
“I feel like I’m starting to get back into the rhythm, little by little,” Bautista said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “I feel like I’m slowly but surely working my way up to be at that same level like I was during the season.”
“I feel really confident with how things have been going,” he added.
Hyde was encouraged both by how Bautista looked in his second spring inning and how his body responded. Bautista had a slow start to camp after ending last season with a sprained left knee and going through a shoulder-strengthening program this winter.
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“Love where he is right now,” Hyde said.
Hyde said Bautista will “ideally” pitch in three or four more games before spring training ends March 27.
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