Amid a cycle of desperation for innings, the Orioles called up a series of right-handers who were older than the typical rookie. Knuckleballer Mickey Jannis, 33, and Konner Wade, 29, couldn’t stick, with both getting designated for assignment shortly after their respective debuts.
But Spenser Watkins, 28, has continued to prove worthy of more opportunities. After a scoreless inning of relief in his first major league appearance, he’s allowed exactly one earned run in three straight starts, the latest such performance covering the first six innings of Baltimore’s third straight victory, a 6-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday.
He’s the only Orioles starter this season with three consecutive outings of one earned run or fewer, with those coming in his first three major league starts. Manager Brandon Hyde said there will be a fourth.
“He’s pitching with confidence,” Hyde said. “The home plate umpire [D.J. Reyburn], I’ve known him for a long time, just mentioned to me how he was impressed with his stuff and surprised that he hadn’t been in the big leagues very long, just because the crispness of the stuff, and how he could command.
“He’s pitching, back to the old school art of pitching, instead of trying to blow the ball by everybody on top of the zone. It’s fun to watch.”
Paired with Matt Harvey’s performance Sunday, Watkins provided Baltimore with consecutive six-inning starts for the first time since Harvey and John Means did so in late April. Watkins credited Orioles pitching coaches Chris Holt and Darren Holmes for helping to “maximize who I am as a pitcher and really upgrade me, in a sense.”
“That’s what I’ve dreamed my entire career, is [to] be able to have success in the big leagues and to be able to do that three times in a row is incredible, and it just pushes me to continue to keep getting better, keep working,” Watkins said. “Complacency is not an option for me, so continue to work, continue to get better and keep doing it. It’s been an incredible ride so far. Enjoying the heck out of it.”
The Orioles (31-62) provided him an early lead on Ryan Mountcastle’s double and Anthony Santander’s sacrifice fly in the first, then built on it in the sixth. Santander opened the frame with a 12-pitch walk, then came home along with Ramón Urías on Pat Valaika’s two-run single. Kelvin Gutiérrez then brought home Valaika with a single and scored on Austin Hays’ double, his third hit out of the leadoff spot with All-Star Cedric Mullins getting a night off before entering as a defensive replacement in the ninth.
Watkins allowed an RBI double to Randy Arozarena with two outs in the sixth but ended his night with his seventh strikeout, more than he recorded in his first two starts combined. Behind him, Cole Sulser, Paul Fry and Tyler Wells pitched a scoreless frame each.
“I‘ve known it was there,” Watkins said. “Over my career, I’ve had my ups and downs as any player has, normal, ride-the-wave kind of a thing. I just think the ability that I have has always been in there, and it’s just a matter of being able to unlock it this year. The work we put in with Holty, Holmey, just the Orioles staff in general has really allowed me to kind of open that up and give me this opportunity to succeed.”
Means hoping to ‘finish how I started’
Around his final rehabilitation start with Triple-A Norfolk, Means, the Orioles’ All-Star left-hander, spent the past week in his native Kansas City area, getting to show off his growing son, McCoy, to family; host a big backyard barbecue to watch Trey Mancini’s Home Run Derby appearance; and rejoin his team for its series victory against the Royals.
Means will officially return from the injured list Tuesday, making his first start since he exited in the first inning of his outing June 5 with a left shoulder strain. Before his injury, Means was among American League leaders in innings pitched and averaged more than six per start, one of which was a no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners. His 2.28 ERA is more than 2 ½ runs lower than any other Oriole with at least five starts. He said his goal for the remainder of the season is “to finish how I started.”
Pitching as deeply as he did before the injury might take some time. Means topped out at 74 pitches in his three rehab starts, and Hyde said he’s “not going to push him in any sort of way these first couple starts.”
Means, though, is just happy to be back and ensured he feels healthy. He said the injury, which has limited him in previous seasons, is the result of his use of his changeup and pronating in his motion, but admitted it’s not something he properly managed in the past. After missing a month and a half, he’s learned how to better take care of it.
“I didn’t really want to take time off,” Means said. “I wanted to try and pitch and make as many starts as I possibly could. Hopefully, one of these years, I can make every start. I don’t want that to be my stigma, is to get hurt halfway through, so it’s just more frustrating that it had to happen, but no point thinking about it now. I’m just moving forward.”
Around the horn
- The Orioles, as they have often this season, used Monday’s universal minor league day off to promote several prospects. Among the moves, 2018 fifth-rounder Robert Neustrom joined Norfolk, 2019 third-rounder Zach Watson joined Double-A Bowie, and 2020 second-round pick Hudson Haskin and Zach Peek — one of the four pitchers acquired in the Dylan Bundy trade with the Los Angeles Angels — moved up to High-A Aberdeen.
- The Orioles announced the availability of Os Unlimited passes, which will allow fans to attend all August and September home games on general admission tickets for $40 per month, with a $5 signup fee. Additional information is available at Orioles.com/unlimited.