Orioles start spring games; LeBlanc's glad to be back: Stewart competes for spot - BaltimoreBaseball.com

Spring Training

Orioles start spring games; LeBlanc’s glad to be back: Stewart competes for spot

What’s happening? –Thomas Eshelman will get the ball first in Sunday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates and be followed by Fernando Abad, Eric Hanhold, Josh Rogers, Isaac Mattson, Marcos Diplán and Conner Greene. The game will start at 1:05 p.m. at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida.

Trey Mancini, who missed the 60-game 2020 season because of colon cancer surgery, will start at first base. Manager Brandon Hyde said Mancini will play first or be used as the designated hitter. He won’t play the outfield, at least not in the early part of games.

Hyde said potential starters will pitch in the same game as he figures out the rotation. The Orioles and Pirates will play nine innings on Sunday, but Hyde said that if another team has fewer pitchers available, games might be shorter.

“We’ll throw some innings on the backfield to make them up that way,” he said.

What happened? Left-hander Wade LeBlanc, who came into camp with a minor league contract last year, is back in 2021.

LeBlanc, who was 1-0 with an 8.06 ERA, came out of a game on August 23rd because of an elbow injury and never returned.

“Not a whole lot other than just a disaster,” LeBlanc said. “From the Covid stuff to the injury. It wasn’t what I envisioned in any way, really. To be able to have an organization like this give you another chance to make good on the contract is a blessing for me, and I’m not going to waste it.”

Veterans Matt Harvey, Félix Hernández and LeBlanc are competing for a starting spot.

DJ Stewart has lost 10 or 12 pounds, depending on the day, as he tries to earn an outfield spot. Stewart had an exciting week last September. After starting the season hitless in his first 17 at-bats, Stewart homered in three straight at-bats and hit six home runs in six games. However, he finished the year in a 4-for-39 (.105) skid.

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“Dropped some weight, try to make a little bit of swing adjustments and using the whole field,” Stewart said of his offseason work.

A place on the team isn’t guaranteed, with Anthony Santander, Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays and Cedic Mullins expected to make up the outfield rotation, and Yusniel Diaz waiting in the wings.

“It’s not different than any other spring training,” Stewart said. “We’ve had the same guys. We have other guys that have come into this organization. I can’t control what they do. I can only control myself. I don’t look at it any differently.”

What’s up with? Nick Ciuffo is a catcher in camp on a minor league contract. Ciuffo, whose name is pronounced Shoo-fo, goes by Shoe.

He has 19 games of major league experience with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2018 and 2019. Ciuffo was the Rays’ No. 1 draft pick in 2013.

Ciuffo joins Taylor Davis and Austin Wynns as non-roster catchers with major league experience.

Hyde, a former catcher, pays careful attention to catchers in camp, and this is his first impression of Ciuffo, the son of Tony Ciuffo, a former sportscaster in South Carolina who was also the longtime sports information director at The College of Charleston.

“Really good defender, former high pick that’s been in Tampa’s system,” Hyde said. “A veteran guy who’s caught a lot of games and been around a little bit. Left-handed bat that’s always a plus, so I’m reserving my opinion for later on. Looks good in defensive drills and throws well. Seems like a really good communicator with our pitchers. Seems like he’s going to be valuable in camp.” 

What’s what? LeBlanc lauded the Orioles for checking on him during the rehab process and helping him raise money for hurricane relief in Louisiana last fall.

“The way that they saw me through the process of the injury, the way that they helped me with the hurricanes back home,” he said. “They did everything in their power to help us raise money, raise awareness for the situation back home. There’s just so much they went above and beyond with. It made a huge impact on the way that I viewed this organization.”

What’s the word? “It’s a positive atmosphere from the top down. The front office is providing everything players need to be successful at this level. Everybody feels like we’re pulling on the same side of the rope, which is great. That’s not something that happens on every squad.” LeBlanc on the Orioles’ clubhouse.

What’s the number? .193, .355, .809. Stewart’s batting average, on-base percentage and OPS. He walked 20 times and struck out 38 in 31 games.

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