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Orioles promote pitching prospect Zac Lowther, who makes his big league debut: ‘Is this a dream?’

Zac and Brianna Lowther crashed just after Saturday night’s Orioles game ended, having put their 3-month-old daughter, Isabelle, to bed just a few hours earlier. Brianna and Isabelle had joined Zac in Maryland earlier in the day, getting to spend some time with him as the left-hander pitched at the Orioles’ alternate training site in Bowie awaiting a promotion to Baltimore.

As the couple faded to sleep, Zac’s phone rang loudly, with him having left the ring tone volume up high. He worried it would wake Isabelle. Instead, it startled Brianna, who asked what happened.

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“Oh, I just got called up,” Zac replied.

“Is this a dream?” Brianna asked in a daze.

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In some ways, it certainly was. Zac Lowther, the Orioles’ No. 19 prospect per Baseball America, was promoted to the major leagues for the first time. After Baltimore officials delivered the good news, he went into the bathroom to call his and Brianna’s parents and share it with them. They were all in attendance for Sunday’s 8-1 victory against the Oakland Athletics, in which Lowther pitched a scoreless ninth inning in his major league debut.

The Orioles' Zac Lowther pitches against the A's in the ninth inning Sunday in his major league debut.
The Orioles' Zac Lowther pitches against the A's in the ninth inning Sunday in his major league debut. (Kenneth K. Lam)

“I feel like I’m really ready,” he said Sunday morning. “When I got here today, it was like I belonged.”

Lowther, who turns 25 on Friday, acknowledged that he was somewhat surprised with the promotion. He was expected to pitch at the alternate site, which is effectively serving as the Orioles’ Triple-A camp, until minor league play began early next month, at which point he would be part of Triple-A Norfolk’s rotation.

Instead, for the time being, he’ll be part of the Orioles’ pitching staff. Manager Brandon Hyde said the Orioles called up Lowther in case they needed a length option in relief Sunday after having a bullpen game Saturday. Wade LeBlanc, the veteran left-hander who started that game by allowing four runs in 1 2/3 innings, was designated for assignment to open a spot for Lowther on the 26-man roster.

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Lowther is the fourth Oriole to make his major league debut in 2021, joining Rule 5 pitchers Tyler Wells and Mac Sceroler and outfielder Ryan McKenna. He was added to Baltimore’s 40-man roster this offseason to protect against him being available to other organizations in the Rule 5 draft. He joins Dean Kremer (No. 9 prospect), Keegan Akin (10) and Bruce Zimmermann (15) as members of a wave of young pitchers in Baltimore’s system who have reached the majors. Right-hander Michael Baumann (8) and left-hander Alexander Wells (20) could also appear this year.

“We’re getting a lot of guys from the system, which is what you want,” Hyde said. “You start getting a healthy organization when you start calling up your own guys, so guys that are coming through our organization, they’re now getting to the big leagues. Even the guys that haven’t played in [Triple-A], McKenna’s here now and Lowther’s here and Akin and Kremer and [Ryan] Mountcastle came here last year. You’re going to see more guys along the way. You’re starting to improve as an organization as you start graduating your own players.”

Outfielder Austin Hays, right, congratulates reliever Zac Lowther after the Orioles' win Sunday.
Outfielder Austin Hays, right, congratulates reliever Zac Lowther after the Orioles' win Sunday. (Kenneth K. Lam)

With the 2020 minor league season canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Lowther and McKenna have both reached Baltimore without playing in Triple-A, which has typically been a prerequisite for promotion under this front office administration. Lowther, though, excelled at every other level of Baltimore’s system before this call-up. The Orioles’ second-round pick in the 2017 draft out of Xavier, he has posted a 2.26 ERA in 61 games, all but two as a starter. He doesn’t have much experience as a reliever, but in one spring training outing this year, he entered with the bases loaded and no outs and managed a scoreless frame, then followed with two more, showing he could be effective in that role.

He and Akin shared the organization’s Jim Palmer Minor League Pitcher of the Year honor in 2018, and in 2019, Lowther made 26 starts for Double-A Bowie with a 2.80 ERA and 154 strikeouts in 148 innings.

He spent 2020 training in his native Ohio before joining the Orioles’ alternate site and returned there this year. With the alternate site serving as a Triple-A camp rather than the developmental camp it was in 2020, Lowther said he approached his time there differently this time around.

“Being able to kind of have a goal in mind of how you want your season to go is definitely something that goes into your work every day,” Lowther said. “My goal was to be here, so the work was very intentional down there.”

Lowther said he worked on a regular starter’s schedule at the alternate site as the camp group played intrasquads and games against the Washington Nationals’ alternate site team, with Sunday being his scheduled day to pitch down there. Hyde said Lowther could certainly start at some point, and the Orioles have an opening in their rotation for Wednesday’s matchup with the New York Yankees, though the timing aligns with when Kremer, a member of Baltimore’s Opening Day rotation, can be promoted from the alternate site after he was optioned last week.

With Kremer unavailable, the Orioles gave LeBlanc his first start of 2021 on Saturday. LeBlanc, 36, signed a minor league deal with the Orioles this offseason after struggling in six starts for them in 2020. He initially opted out of his contract only to re-sign on a major league contract and make the team’s Opening Day roster. In six outings, LeBlanc allowed seven earned runs in 6 2/3 innings.

“He’s a big-time pro,” Hyde said. “Was great in our clubhouse, one of our few veteran guys that we have, and it’s not easy to have that conversation with somebody like that.”

But it also opened the door for Lowther.

“Everything that I’ve done has been to get me here,” Lowther said. “I think I’m ready.”

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