NORTH PORT, Florida—The first game at CoolToday Park was played at the tail end of last season’s spring training. However, Atlanta designated Saturday as its official opening. The Orioles made it a successful one for the Braves, losing 5-0.
There were first pitches from notables in Braves history and a welcoming address from Hall of Famer John Schuerholz, the Baltimore native who designed the storied Atlanta teams of the 1990s and early 2000s.
For 26 years, the Braves trained at Walt Disney World and played their spring games in an antiseptic ballpark that was merely a sideshow for the Magic Kingdom.
After the Orioles moved to Sarasota 10 years ago, other teams saw the team’s fine facility and the possibility of new spring training homes.
Atlanta built its facility in the southern end of Sarasota County, about 40 minutes from Ed Smith Stadium.
There were the expected bugs in the new ballpark, but overall it’s a significant improvement from Disney.
It’s somewhat jarring to look at a calendar and see a first game played on February 22, but for Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, it was a pleasure.
“It’s always nice to get back to games,” Hyde said. “I wasn’t ready a few days ago, but yesterday, there was definitely a feeling of ‘it’s time to see another uniform.’
“This is an added special thing because of being in a ballpark that none of us has been in before. It’s nice to hear the organ. I’m ready to play some baseball, so it’s nice to watch these guys.”
The Orioles have perhaps a dozen pitchers to audition for a starting job. Over the next three days, three of the more realistic possibilities — Wade LeBlanc, Alex Cobb and John Means are scheduled.
But first, Hyde rolled out two long shots, Chandler Shepherd and Ty Blach.
Shepherd and Blach combined for eight starts last season. Neither is on the 40-man roster. Shepherd had a 6.63 ERA and Blach’s was 11.32.
With the exception of former Oriole star Nick Markakis, Shepherd faced a top-shelf lineup. He allowed the first four hitters — Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman and Adam Duvall — to reach base. The first three scored.
“There’s a lot of names in that lineup that I’ve been watching on TV for a long time,” Shepherd said.
Hyde cut Shepherd some slack.
“He just looked like he was overdoing things in the first inning,” Hyde said. “Lacked some command, but found it in the second inning, so that was good to see. He was trying too hard.
“Those things do happen. It’s the first day of games. You hope that it wears off quickly. Our timing was off offensively. We didn’t barrel many baseballs. We walked five guys … It’s a lot of guys trying to win a job and maybe trying too hard at times.”
After two innings, Shepherd was replaced by Blach, who allowed a run on three hits. Rob Zastryzny, another non-roster hopeful, allowed a run in the fifth.
Cody Carroll, Hunter Cervenka and Branden Kline each pitched scoreless innings.
Shepherd tried to lose weight in the offseason and was pleased with how his winter went.
“From a strength and conditioning side of it, I think I did a really good job of it in the weight room,” Shepherd said. “Better eating habits and stuff like that to put me in a good spot coming into camp.”
Hyde’s lineup did not include expected starters Hanser Alberto, Chris Davis, José Iglesias, Trey Mancini, Rio Ruiz and Pedro Severino.
“You’ll see a whole new nine tomorrow starting,” Hyde said.
The starters included some other fringe possibilities to make the Opening Day roster. Pat Valaika, who’s started just 12 times at first in 143 major league games, played there. Mason Williams was in right. José Rondon played second, with Renato Nuñez at third.
Ryan Mountcastle, who’s being auditioned at first and in the outfield, was the starting leftfielder.
The Orioles were held to four singles, one each by Mountcastle, Rondon, Valaika and Williams, and none in the last four innings.
Adley Rutschman pinch-hit in the eighth inning and struck out on five pitches by Chad Sobotka, a Sarasota native.
“Good to get him an at-bat,” Hyde said. “We’ll sprinkle some at-bats in over the course of the next couple of weeks. Good to get him a little taste of what big league spring training’s like, so he should relax as he continues to take [at-bats.”]
After the game, Hyde commented on the park.
“It’s a big park,” Hyde said. “The wind was blowing in. It played really big today. Not that we tested it much.”