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Rays rally against Orioles bullpen for 6-3 win to spoil Tom Eshelman's strong debut

Tom Eshelman’s calling card as a pitcher has always been his control, so it makes sense he managed to wrangle whatever emotions were bothering him in his first inning as a major league pitcher.

Eshelman’s debut was good enough to win, but the Orioles didn’t after their bullpen surrendered four runs in a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night. The 25-year-old right-hander’s five innings of two-run ball, with both runs coming in the first inning, came less than a month after the Orioles acquired him.

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“It was pretty surreal,” Eshelman said. “Going out there stretching and getting ready for the start, it was something that I’ve always dreamed of and for me to be able to do it here is unbelievable. So I was really excited to get that first strike. After the bumpy first, get in the dugout and kind of reset and go back out there and give my team the ability to win, it was just a great opportunity.”

The Houston Astros’ second-round draft pick in 2015 when Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias was Houston’s scouting director, Eshelman was part of a package sent to the Philadelphia Phillies for closer Ken Giles that offseason. He climbed the Phillies’ organizational ladder and reached Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2017, a year in which he was honored as the top pitcher in Philadelphia’s system and started for the International League in the Triple-A All-Star Game. He competed for a rotation spot the next spring, and after he didn’t get it, he had a 5.84 ERA back with the IronPigs.

He began this year with the Phillies’ Double-A affiliate in Reading, struggled there, then pitched well after returning to Lehigh Valley. The Orioles acquired him for international signing bonus pool slots June 10, desperate for starting pitching depth to plug into the high minors and able to do so at the expense of slots they didn’t plan to use anyway. Eshelman also didn’t require a 40-man roster spot, and with the Orioles recently shuffling through several pitchers in their fifth starter role, that had to change before Monday’s game. Left-hander Josh Rogers, who Tuesday could get news he requires Tommy John surgery, was moved to the 60-day injured list, and Eshelman finally got his call-up.

“It’s been a long road,” he said.

Eshelman’s fiancee, Nicholle, had just gotten into Norfolk on Saturday when he got the news from Tides manager Gary Kendall that he was being promoted, making for a busy travel day. But she, his parents and his brother were in St. Petersburg for his first start.

As a Cal State Fullerton standout, Eshelman set the Titans’ career ERA record at 1.65, but he earned his reputation for excellent command by walking only 0.43 batters per nine innings, a Division I record after he began his college career with 63 1/3 walkless innings.

The same could not be said for his major league career, as he walked the second batter he faced as his curveball hung and his high 80s mph fastball did anything but sizzle to allow the Rays to tag him for four hits and two runs. He left the bases loaded with a pair of groundouts, the latter coming off the bat of Brendan McKay, who Eshelman faced in an NCAA Super Regional while at Fullerton.

“I knew what not to throw him because he hit a homer off me in that game,” Eshelman quipped.

He retired 13 of the final 15 batters he faced and didn’t allow a run over his final four frames, walking one and striking out none, becoming the third Oriole to go at least five innings with no strikeouts in his debut. Thanks to RBI singles from Hanser Alberto, Pedro Severino and Rio Ruiz, his outing officially ended after 75 pitches with him in position for his first major league win and a shower of various liquids in Tropicana Field’s visiting clubhouse.

Instead, Branden Kline entered in the sixth and allowed a walk and a single before serving up a three-run home run to Kevin Kiermaier and exiting the game. The Rays added another run off Miguel Castro in the seventh, and Kline was optioned after the game. Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said he didn’t want Eshelman to go through the Rays’ order a third time, noting a recent run of hard contact. Each Ray who batted against Eshelman in the fifth hit the ball 97 mph or harder, per Statcast.

But the result shouldn’t detract from Eshelman’s night, nor should the possibility he’s off the roster by Tuesday’s game as the Orioles try to fit starter Asher Wojciechowski onto the roster. For one night in his third organization, he was a major leaguer. And Hyde would like to see more of him, noting his knack for attacking the strike zone is something the Orioles’ relievers could learn from.

“He can locate the baseball, and you can pitch in this league if you can locate the baseball,” Hyde said. “And we have some guys in our bullpen who have premiere stuff that have a tough time locating the baseball, and so hence you see the 6-8 ERAs. Not because of stuff but because of command and walking leadoff hitters, center cutting 3-1 fastballs. It does not play in this league, and this guy Eshelman did a great job of pitching.

“I was impressed. He gave me a little Kyle Hendricks feel, of a guy being able to work both sides of the plate and throw off-speed in fastball counts. Nice tempo, looked like a pro.”

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