It was supposed to be one of those marquee pitching matchups that haven’t passed this way very often over the last few years.
Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani is a big draw wherever he goes and he was matched against one of the most anticipated young Oriole pitchers since Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina were pups.
What more could anyone want on a beautiful Monday night in Baltimore?
Well, maybe a tense pitching duel?
No such luck. Grayson Rodriguez suffered through the worst performance of his young career and Ohtani was only able to channel the Babe Ruth who had long since given up pitching to concentrate on being the best one-way player of his era.
Ohtani pitched well enough to win, but only because he staged a personal fireworks show that left Rodriguez – quite literally — star-struck. He walked in his first plate appearance, then singled, homered and tripled in consecutive innings to flirt with the second cycle of his career.
He didn’t get it, so he had to settle for one of the longest home runs in the history of Oriole Park and the second-longest by any pitcher since Statcast started keeping track of that kind of thing in 2015. Oh, and he reached base in all six of his plate-appearances, becoming the first starting pitcher to reach base that many times in a game since Mel Stottlemyre did it against the Washington Senators on September 26th, 1964.
There was also a revenge angle at work. The only other time Ohtani pitched at Camden Yards, a much-less-imposing incarnation of the Orioles treated him rudely in what had to go down as one of the all-time reverse-lock matchups.
That was on August 21st, 2021 and Ohtani came into the game with an 8-1 record and 2.74 ERA. He was in the midst of his – so far – greatest season, during which he finished with a 9-2 record in 23 starts, had 46 home runs and 100 RBIs, and led all of baseball with an 8.9 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) on the way to being named American League Most Valuable Player.
The O’s, meanwhile, entered the game in the midst of a 19-game losing streak, second in futility only to the infamous 21-game losing streak that opened the 1988 season. But somehow, they hit three homers and pushed him out of the game after only five innings. This time, he allowed homers to Adam Frazier, Anthony Santander and Cedric Mullins, but had a big enough cushion to stick around for seven innings and improve his record to 5-1.
Rodriguez has experienced the kind of highs and lows that you would expect from a pitcher during his first six weeks in the major leagues. In what is often a school of hard knocks for a young player, this was the hardest lesson so far, and he had no trouble identifying what went wrong.
“Falling behind in the count,’’ he said. “Obviously, big league hitters are going to hit mistakes, especially when they’re left over the plate, and if you start out behind as a pitcher, that’s going to make things pretty tough.”
Asked to assess his overall body of work at the major league level – eight starts, a 2-1 record and a 6.57 ERA — Rodriguez put it in the context of a work in progress.
“I think there are a lot of learning experiences, some good and some bad,’’ Rodriguez said. “I’m just kind of picking and choosing the things to learn from each game. Obviously, you learn the best from your mistakes. It’s unfortunate that things like this happen, but ultimately, I’m going to learn the most from this one.”
That ERA isn’t pretty and Monday night’s performance was pretty ugly, but keep in mind that the Orioles have won six of those eight starts.
When he left the mound after giving up eight earned runs in 3 1/3 innings, the crowd reaction was largely positive, but there was a smattering of boos, which didn’t sit well with manager Brandon Hyde.
“I think that people have to be a little more patient with a young player, facing a really good club that has a couple of superstars in it and good major league players,’’ Hyde said. “Every night’s not the Super Bowl. Things happen and, you know, he’s going to make his next start.”