For the first seven seasons of his professional career, Spenser Watkins’ dream was to take the mound at Comerica Park. Sunday, wearing an Orioles uniform, he finally got to.
A longtime Detroit Tigers farmhand, Watkins started for Baltimore in a 6-2 loss that left the Orioles with a split in their four-game set at the ballpark that long represented the final destination of the right-hander’s climb toward the major leagues.
“To have that opportunity finally, to get there after my years seeing it from the outside in was incredible,” Watkins said. “I am beyond glad that I was able to do it in the orange and black, but it was an incredible feeling.”
A 30th-round pick in 2014, Watkins, 28, bounced around the system and was never considered a top prospect. He pitched well in Detroit’s lower levels but struggled in Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 6.07 ERA in a 2019 season mostly spent with those affiliates. He was with the Tigers for spring training in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic struck, then was released during the summer.
He contemplated retirement only for Baltimore to offer a minor league contract and an opportunity. He’s taken advantage of it, pitching well enough to reach the majors, break into the Orioles’ rotation and stick in it long enough to get the chance to start Sunday in Detroit.
“A lot of emotions early on,” Watkins said. “I had to wrangle those in that first inning, but after that, I felt comfortable.”
After former minor league teammate Tyler Alexander allowed two runs to the Orioles (37-67) in the top of the first, Watkins got the first two outs of the bottom half on four pitches, but a walk issued on a borderline full-count pitch to Robbie Grossman that sparked a Tigers rally. Another free pass followed, then an RBI single off first baseman Trey Mancini and a two-run double as it took 29 pitches for Watkins to complete the first.
“The ball didn’t bounce our way today,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He got squeezed a little bit on the Grossman walk. That would’ve been three outs, inning over with a low pitch count after one. And then that ball to Trey, hits something and kind of shot up the opposite way, kind of a bad-luck bounce right by the bag.”
Watkins said umpire’s judgment calls are part of the game, and he needs to do a better job going forward of not being in situations where a borderline pitch can decide his outing. His final three pitches of the first went toward a strikeout that sparked a run of 14 straight batters retired. It ended on Grossman’s one-out triple in the sixth, and a sacrifice fly from Miguel Cabrera left Watkins with four runs allowed on three hits in 5 ⅔ innings.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
“It could have unraveled there, so he did a really nice job,” Hyde said. “Excellent from the second inning into the sixth. He kept us right there.”
Watkins said he was frustrated afterward that his long first inning stopped him from getting the chance to complete the sixth, which would’ve marked the first time this year an Orioles starter has done so in three straight games. Through five starts with Baltimore, his ERA is 3.81.
“I’ve said it since Day 1: For me, my pride rides in eating innings and to fill those innings and keep my pitch count low,” he said. “That’s a pride thing for me, so that was more so frustration on just not giving myself the opportunity to finish that inning.”
Conner Greene got the final out of the sixth before he left two runners on in the seventh for Keegan Akin, who allowed both to score in his first outing after being activated off the COVID-19 injured list earlier Sunday.
Doubles, then trouble
The first four Orioles to face Alexander on Sunday hit the ball over 100 mph, with Austin Hays, Ryan Mountcastle and Anthony Santander doubling around Mancini’s 101 mph flyout.
But from there, the Orioles’ offense went quiet, managing only two hits the rest of the way. Santander singled in the third, while Mountcastle singled in the eighth to improve to 6-for-13 in the series.
“We came out swinging the bat extremely aggressively early in the count and drove a few balls there in the first, and then continued to stay aggressive early in the count and made a bunch of really easy-out quick innings,” Hyde said. “Maybe they made better pitches following that top of the first, but we gave a lot of at-bats away there, the second inning on.”
Around the horn
- To activate Akin, the Orioles put left-hander Tanner Scott on the 10-day IL with a left knee sprain and designated right-hander Thomas Eshelman for assignment.
- Center fielder Cedric Mullins and shortstop Ramón Urías were given a day off, with Hyde hoping to keep his regulars healthy and rested over the final two months.
- Jorge López, Alexander Wells and Matt Harvey will start for Baltimore in its three-game series against the New York Yankees.