Mike Wright knew he had something to prove against the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals on Monday night at Camden Yards. His demotion was a short one — the struggling right-hander was optioned following his previous start, then recalled the next day when setup man Darren O'Day went on the disabled list — but the sting of being temporarily booted from the Orioles starting rotation lasted much longer.
"It didn't matter what team was in the box today, I was going to try to do well," Wright said. "That's my feeling every day, but today in particular."
Second chances don't often come so quickly, and Wright made sure he made the most of his on Monday night, giving his best pitching performance since his first days as a major leaguer in the Orioles' 4-1 win over the Royals.
Wright allowed a sole unearned run over seven innings of work, tying his longest start of the season, while holding Kansas City to five hits — four of them singles — to earn his first win in nearly three weeks.
"He got a do-over," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Not many people do. I think he would have eventually gotten one anyway, but it came a little faster. … I don't care how well you pitch [in the minors], when you've had some challenges up here, you don't really gain all the answers just from going down there. But it's kind of like he took all the things we've been talking that he's capable of doing better and he did them tonight. We'll see what the future holds."
It marked the first time Wright has pitched seven or more innings without allowing an earned run since his first two major league starts last season (on May 17 and May 23 of 2015), when Wright tossed 7 1/3 and seven shutout innings, respectively.
"He came out here with a vengeance," third baseman Manny Machado said of Wright. "Nobody wants to get sent down. He had something to prove, that he wanted to be up here and wanted to stay here. The next start he has to come out and do the same thing. We know what he's capable of. He just needs to bring it out every day, every pitch, every outing. He knows what he needs to do. He's just got to go out there and do it."
Wright went into Monday's start coming off his two shortest starts of the season, including lasting just 2 2/3 innings and allowing six runs in a 13-9 win over the Red Sox on Wednesday. With right-hander Yovani Gallardo's return from the disabled list looming, Wright was still possibly pitching for his spot in the rotation Monday night. Gallardo could return from the DL as early as Sunday following a rehab start Tuesday for Triple-A Norfolk.
Leading up to Monday was boot camp for Wright. He watched video of all of his outings — the good moments and the bad ones — and seeing how he had to improve to remain a major leaguer.
"I saw the pitches that I was executing well and I saw the good results were pitches down," Wright said. "So what do you need to work on? Keeping the ball down and not missing by two feet. Missing by an inch, missing by two inches, missing by three inches. Keeping it a little more close to the target, executing pitches."
The Royals' batting order wasn't as intimidating as usual on Monday — Orioles killers Mike Moustakas, Kendrys Morales and Alex Gordon were replaced by Whit Merrifield, Cheslor Cuthbert and Paulo Orlando — but Wright was nonetheless effective. They also included seven right-handed hitters, mostly void of the lefties that are hitting .369/.421/.607 against him.
"He threw the ball great," catcher Matt Wieters said. "You could tell he put a lot of work in throughout the week to be able to get himself ready to pitch tonight. The command was there. He was able to command his fastball and mix in the off-speed stuff just enough. That's a good hitting lineup and a good fastball-hitting lineup, so he really had to locate tonight, and he did a great job."
Wright had worked through the seventh inning just once in his previous seven starts, mainly because the seventh was where it often unraveled for him, just as it did the last time he faced the Royals on April 24 in Kansas City. In that game, the Royals scored four runs in the seventh — three of them charged to Wright — in a 6-1 win over the Orioles.
Opposing hitters entered the night batting .333/.442/.595 against Wright the third time through the order, but on Monday, Wright limited the damage when the Royals faced him for the third time.
Wright issued a one-out walk in the sixth to Merrifield — a free pass that could have led to his demise — but retired the Royals' two best hitters, striking out Lorenzo Cain and inducing a harmless groundout from Eric Hosmer.
"I thought the hump inning was the sixth facing the top of the order there and he held his stuff throughout," Showalter said. "In the future I think he's going to be able to continue in that game, but he had a good outing, [especially] kind of knowing some of the history."
Wright then allowed back-to-back one-out singles to Orlando and Cuthbert in the seventh. The only run against Wright scored on the next play when Jarrod Dyson hit a grounder that Machado fielded and tossed to second for a forceout. Knowing he wasn't going to get the speedy Dyson, second baseman Jonathan Schoop attempted to bluff a throw to first — hoping to catch Orlando off third — but the ball hit Cuthbert on the right arm and ricocheted away, allowing Orlando to score from third base.
Despite falling behind on that unearned run, Wright retired the next batter out on a pop up to end the inning.
"When you get in any situation and you get out of it, that's a big situation," Wright said. "If I give up three runs in the first, we are still playing. So if I give them up in the sixth or anywhere it doesn't matter. But I thought even with that walk I was throwing some pretty good pitches, pretty close. Wasn't getting the swings, but that's satisfying to know that you just walked somebody but you're not all over the zone."
The most impressive part of Wright's outing might have been how he maintained his cool, especially in overcoming some bumps in his final two innings. Wright wears his emotions on his sleeves, and his composure has at times been as difficult to maintain as his ability to get hitters out late in games.
"I think he focused in more on focusing on his delivery and focusing on his pitches tonight, which was big," Wieters said. "You don't want to take that energy away from a guy because its why he has such a great arm and throws such great pitches. But tonight he focused that energy on each pitch, which is big for him."
After the Royals' unearned run in the seventh, the Orioles took the lead in the bottom half of the inning — their fifth straight comeback win — on solo homers by Mark Trumbo and Matt Wieters, as well as Adam Jones' two-out RBI double. Once the Orioles took the lead on Wieters' blast, Wright's night was done as reliever Brad Brach started warming up. Brach tossed a scoreless eighth.
"Mike kept us in it," Wieters said. "… We were finally able to get a couple balls on the barrel and they just happened to carry over the fence."