When a team puts as much stock in the future as the Orioles have, it’s asking a lot of fans to believe that all the losing in the interim is worth the wait.
Nights like Saturday are where a little bit of that patience pays off. The Orioles posted a 6-1 win over the New York Yankees with well-regarded pitching prospect Keegan Akin carrying a shutout into the sixth inning and the team’s young bats finally breaking the game open against ace starter Gerrit Cole.
“I think that we’re starting to see talented guys get here and getting some great experience,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We’re starting to see a little bit of what this could look like in a couple years.”
The Orioles waited weeks to add Akin to their starting rotation, breaking him in slowly as a reliever before unleashing him as a starter this week. He struck out eight Yankees while allowing three hits and walking four.
DJ Stewart waited weeks, on either side of a minor league demotion, for an elusive first hit of the season. It came in his 31st plate appearance in the form of a home run off Cole, the most expensive pitcher in the world. Stewart added a second home run in his next at-bat to continue making up for lost time.
Like Akin, outfielder Ryan Mountcastle had to wait for his debut, too. The reigning International League Most Valuable Player spent the first month-plus of the season polishing some rough edges at the team’s secondary camp in Bowie. His two-strike, bases-loaded single off Cole broke the game open in a five-run sixth inning. He later scored on a two-run double by Rio Ruiz.
“We’re building a nice foundation right now,” Hyde said. “I’m really proud and really happy — especially the performance tonight. I thought that was just a really, really nice team win.”
It didn’t initially look like a day youth would prevail. While Akin started strongly, so too did Cole, striking out eight of the first nine batters he faced and not allowing a base runner until José Iglesias’ two-out double in the fourth inning.
Cole wasn’t any less dominant after that, but the sixth inning, which began with Stewart’s improbable home run, seemed to knock the entire game off kilter. Hanser Alberto went on to reach on an awful throwing error by Yankees third baseman Thairo Estrada. Iglesias, who entered the game with one walk in 92 plate appearances, drew a second walk.
Mountcastle’s single came on an 0-2 fastball that was several inches above the strike zone. The ball boy down the first base line picked up Ruiz’s double, but two runs scores. Cole left with a five-run inning full of the bizarre on his resume.
Dillon Tate, who finished Akin’s sixth inning, struck out two in the seventh before walking two and leaving some traffic for Paul Fry. That was enough to earn Tate his first career win.
A home run by Clint Frazier in the eighth inning accounted for the Yankees’ lone run. Fry pitched two innings before journeyman right-hander César Valdez came in for the final out.
Akin, making his second start after going 4 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run Monday against the Toronto Blue Jays, showed much of the same repertoire and plan against the Yankees on Saturday. He located his fastball, which hitters have a hard time squaring up, high in the strike zone. This time around, he used his changeup much more effectively, getting five swinging strikes on 19 changeups against right-handed hitters.
“It feels good,” Akin said. “Last year, I struggled a little bit and bought into the whole throwing my off-speed stuff, but I think it’s showing that’s it’s made me better and more consistent.”
Wth the win, Akin lowered his ERA to 2.08. His 16 swinging strikes were tied for second-most by an Orioles pitcher this season.
The rookie admitted facing Cole was a bit daunting, but that his job is to keep the team in the game. Hyde loved the way he did it.
“Keegan picked up where he left off in Buffalo because he was once again aggressive with the strike zone, aggressive with his fastball,” Hyde said. “Saw some really good changeups tonight, and got a lot of swings and misses on his fastball. It’s got a lot of hop to it. ... Really impressed by Keegan Akin’s poise, with how he attacked a good lineup.”
Manager Brandon Hyde assured after Friday’s doubleheader that Stewart’s hitless season wasn’t the product of bad at-bats, and that he’d been putting together good plate appearances. His nine walks in 28 plate appearances indicated as much.
But Stewart broke out in a big way with his first career multi-homer game Saturday. With those two big swings, he raised his OPS from .385 entering the game to .835 after he was substituted in the eighth inning.
“It’s very satisfying,” Stewart said. “Obviously any time you start slow, it weighs in the back of your head. But I’ve had a great support staff back home, my teammates just believing in me and still cheering me on and giving me the confidence to go up there every at-bat and keep swinging.”
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Hyde said: “Happy for him. I think credit to him, that he went down to our secondary site and really put the work in, made some adjustments, made some improvements, and he came back here with some confidence. It didn’t happen the first game or two for him, but to see him turn around a Gerrit Cole fastball and hit it for a home run to right, I know that must have been an amazing feeling for him because of the work he’s put in has been outstanding.”