SALISBURY-As Adley Rutschman stepped into the left-handed batter’s box for pregame batting practice, it took a few swings for everyone in the press box to start watching. It was more than 2 1/2 hours before the start of Thursday night’s game against the Greensboro Grasshoppers, and Rutschman didn’t have his number 37 on the sleeve of his warmup shirt like his Delmarva Shorebirds teammates.
The session started like most, with him hitting balls to both sides of the field. But it ended with a bang. Rutschman flipped a switch, crushing a pitch that was a home run as soon as it left the bat. It landed well over the right-field fence, almost exactly like the home run he hit in his final game in Aberdeen on Monday night. That would be Rutschman’s final game for the Orioles short-season Single-A affiliate before being promoted to Single-A Delmarva.
“Just watching him in (batting practice), he uses the field, and he’s one of those guys who can hit the ball out,” Shorebirds hitting coach Dan Radison said. “He doesn’t have to pull the ball out; he can hit it anywhere.”
The promotion wasn’t initially a goal for Rutschman, though it wasn’t surprising after the blazing finish to his time with the IronBirds. He closed out his time in Aberdeen on a 10-game hit streak, hitting .462 with one home run and 14 RBIs over that stretch.
“To me, I didn’t expect anything,” Rutschman said. “It was a matter of staying with my process and continuing to work and perform as well as I could. Wherever I was at, it didn’t really matter to me as long as I could continue to stay with that process.”
Rutschman is once again adjusting to new surroundings. He’s trying to learn names and faces and, most importantly, a new pitching staff. His coaches and teammates are making the same adjustment. It’s only been a day, but Rutschman has made a strong first impression.
“Yesterday’s first round of (batting practice), he hit a ball out of dead center field, which in this park is very hard to do,” Shorebirds manager Kyle Moore said. “I’m looking at a limited sample size but at first glance quite a bit of ‘wow’ factor there.”
Rutschman didn’t show off that power the past two nights, going 0-for-5 with three walks. Radison doesn’t expect the No. 1 overall pick to get pitches to hit often, so he’ll have to work on patience at the plate.
“In the lower levels, there’s not going to be a lot of protection,” Radison said. “You ain’t got (Ryan) Mountcastle hitting behind him so he’s going to have to have some patience.”
Whatever Rutschman was unable to do in the batter’s box, he made up for it behind the plate. After being the designated hitter in his Aberdeen debut, Rutschman caught in his Delmarva debut, guiding five pitchers through a two-hit shutout in a 1-0 win over the Grasshoppers. He also threw out a runner, nailing Ji-hwan Bae in the top of the seventh inning. The throw was a laser, beating the No. 8 prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates system by a step.
Gray Fenter, who threw the first three innings of the game, was impressed with Rutschman’s composure behind the plate. Ruben Garcia, who closed out the win, saw Rutschman pick up on his tendencies almost immediately. Garcia doesn’t like to say yes to the first sign he gets from a pitcher in an attempt to throw off hitters. Rutschman told Garcia to wave him off a few times, even if they had agreed on a pitch.
“Just throwing to him once, I can tell he knows the game,” Garcia said. “I’m excited to have him as a part of the team.”
Rutschman embraces the challenges that come with having to learn a new staff.
“It makes you better every time you catch a new pitcher,” Rutschman said. “You (have to) learn their different qualities. It can be a little uncomfortable at first, but that’s what you try to do in any sport in any situation is try to make yourself as uncomfortable as possible so it makes everything a little easier. As my grandfather used to say, ‘be comfortable being uncomfortable.’”
If Rutschman is uncomfortable as he learns each pitcher on the Shorebirds’ staff, he doesn’t appear that way to his teammates. Like in Aberdeen, Rutschman is more comfortable focusing on baseball than being the center of attention. That’s helped him jell with a team that’s already won a club record 85 games this season.
“I think that him not wanting the attention really helps that go along,” Fenter said. “It helps us not act like he’s somebody special because he doesn’t want us to act that way. He wants to fly under the radar like everyone else.”
Rutschman’s time in Delmarva will be eventful. The Shorebirds have already clinched a spot in the South Atlantic League playoffs after winning the Northern Division’s first half title. But he’s trying to keep it simple, focusing on what he needs to do to keep progressing through the minor leagues.
“Obviously, I could say I want to hit .500 and throw out every runner,” Rutschman said. “But for me, as long as I feel like I’m getting better here and continuing to improve and work on my adjustments and get familiar with all the guys and make friends and get accustomed to everything, I think that’s a big thing for me going forward.”