SARASOTA, FLA. — Orioles pitching prospect Mike Wright felt great coming out of the bullpen on that night in mid-June. His fastball was painting both sides of the plate, his slider had impressive movement and his changeup was working.
That was the night Wright, pitching for Triple-A Norfolk, thought he would turn his season around. But once he took the mound against the Syracuse Chiefs, he retired just four of the 12 batters he faced, walked four and didn't get out of the second inning. It was his shortest start of the season.
In 2013, Wright was named the Orioles minor league pitcher of the year following a breakout season at Double-A Bowie, but that start for the Tides on June 12 had Wright looking to Norfolk manager Ron Johnson and pitching coach Mike Griffin for answers.
"That was definitely one of the lowest times in my career," Wright said. "My arm was feeling fantastic (that night). … At that point, I'm thinking, 'I did everything I needed to do. I went back and watched film.' I'm thinking maybe I'm not supposed to be at this level yet.
"But I talked to Griff and R.J. and they told me 'You have the talent, you're supposed to be here. You can't get down on yourself even though the results are absolutely terrible right now.' I really tried to take that in, because they know what they're talking about. They've seen guys come though. I kind of took that and ran with it."
By the end of the year, Wright — who opened the season losing nine of his first 10 decisions at Norfolk and posting a 6.42 ERA in 19 starts — had turned around his season, and ended itwith back-to-back near-no-hit bids. In the offseason, he was rewarded when the Orioles added him to the organization's 40-man roster.
"Those two (near) no hitters were probably two of the best outings I've seen in a long time," Griffin said. "He took what we were talking to him about, he let the scenarios play out, he let the game come to him and he was dominant. He was the best pitcher in the International League in the second half. That's how good he was."
Wright is in his third big-league camp and he's seen a lot in that time — and he understands making it to the majors is still a process. On Friday, he received his first spring training start against the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin,Fla., and allowed two runs on four hits over two innings.
"This year is definitely a way different feeling," Wright said. "For one, I'm on the 40-man and that's a great feeling to have in itself. But the fact that I struggled last year and I know the mental approach I had at the middle of that year and the mental approach I had at the end. It was just amazing, because I'm going to stick with that and ride it out throughout my career."
Part of what turned Wright's 2014 season around were improved mechanics. He tested a new, higher arm slot, in an attempt to get a better downward angle from his 6-foot-6 frame.
"I was trying to be too fine and the more I was trying to be fine, the worse it became," Wright said. "When I just saw the target, relaxed and threw I was actually way more precise. I went back to my natural arm angle (three-quarters) and I actually create more downward angle than when I throw straight over the top. There was the realization that this is in who I am. This is what I'm going to give you and trying not to be anybody else."
Catcher Brian Ward, who caught several of Wright's starts at Norfolk, noticed a difference.
"I don't know if it was that he was trying too much, but as far as the difference between the beginning of the season and the end, I think he just let things happen. His stuff at the beginning of the season was quality stuff. It was good. If Mike can command his fastball on the outside corner to a right-handed hitter, he's going to be really good. I feel like the second half he found that. … Once he found his release point, all of his pitches were on point."
"It got to the point where the season was going so bad," Wright said. "I know I'm pretty good and I thought 'there was no way this can continue. I'm just going to relax and throw. The results have to turn around.' I just went out there and thought, 'Whatever you call, I'm going to let it rip.' Once I did that, I started seeing good results and told myself 'why don't I approach every game like this?' Just say, 'this is what I got, this is what you're gonna get and whatever the results are, that's what there's going to be.'
Following a loss to Rochester on July 20, Wright was 1-9, opponents were batting .316 off him and he had gone six full innings just three times in 19 starts. Over his final seven starts, he was 4-2 with a 0.95 ERA. Opponents batted just .202 against him. His control came back as well, as he struck out 37 batters and walked just eight.
"I think he quit trying to strike everybody out," Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "He really pitched. It's really good to see a guy come on stronger at the end. … He looks the part."
The pinnacle was the final two games of the season, both against the Durham Bulls. Wright took a no-hitter to the final strike of the game on Aug. 21 in Durham, and likely would have had a no-hitter had Norfolk shortstop Alexi Casilla not committed a throwing error on a grounder that would have been the final out of the game. The next batter doubled down the right field line to break up the no-hit and complete-game shutout bids with one swing.
Wright was pulled after allowing the hit, but struck out a season-high 11 batters and went a season-best 8 2/3 innings.
In his next start — his last of the season — he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Through 6 1/3 innings, he faced just one batter over the minimum before Mikie Mahtook, the same hitter who broke up his previous no-hit bid, singled. He left the game having pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings of two-hit ball.
"Come on, that's unheard of," Griffin said of Wright's last two outings.
A rotation spot with the Orioles isn't available — the club has six starters competing for five spots — but he hopes to impress the Orioles enough to be one of the first pitchers the big league team calls if there's a need, whether it's as a starter or a reliever.
"Honestly, I finished with a good season so that's mainly what I try to focus on but I try to think about and understand what it was that got me out of that," Wright said. "I had so much success and I had so much fun. I feel like I made my teammates better when I was on the mound with that approach compared to the beginning of the year, when I might have been kind of a drag to see pitch. ... I know what I want to accomplish, and how I want to accomplish it."