Challenged to ‘step up,’ Orioles’ young pitchers respond with scoreless start to season: ‘We’re in this together’
A week before the Orioles shut out the Milwaukee Brewers in their home opener Monday, two pitchers vital to the victory were among those executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said would need to either “step up” in 2022 or risk that the Orioles “move on” from them.
Those who have gotten major league opportunities thus far have accepted the challenge.
In the wake of Elias’ comments about a group of pitchers in their mid-20s who once ranked among the organization’s top prospects, Keegan Akin, Bruce Zimmermann and Mike Baumann have started the regular season with a combined 9 1/3 scoreless innings. Zimmermann, who grew up in Ellicott City and became the first Maryland-born pitcher to start a home opener at Camden Yards, combined with Baumann to record 19 of the needed 27 outs for the Orioles in their shutout of the reigning National League Central champions . Two days earlier, Akin pitched three scoreless innings of relief, throwing 27 of his 31 pitches for strikes and generating a career-high swinging strike percentage.
“We all can build confidence off it,” Baumann said. “We’re gonna push each other to keep doing that. It’s great to be able to push each other. We’re in this together.”
Perhaps at least one of those three can produce the “real cemented breakout” Elias noted the Orioles have yet to receive from a group that features them, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther and — although Elias didn’t name him specifically after he had already been demoted from major league camp — Alexander Wells, who was recalled Monday after Kremer landed on the 10-day injured list with strained left oblique suffered warming up to enter Sunday’s game. Lowther was one of the final players cut from major league spring training.
All of those pitchers — none of whom Elias acquired — spent time in the majors last year, with Zimmermann’s 5.04 ERA being the best among them.
“We still have high hopes for them and want some of those guys to click this year because it’s gonna be tough if they don’t, and we’re going to have to move on to other people,” Elias said last week.
Two of the Orioles’ top three pitching prospects, Grayson Rodriguez and Kyle Bradish, are at Triple-A Norfolk, while the left-hander ranked between them, DL Hall, is being slow-played coming off a stress fracture in his pitching elbow. There are hopes that all three will reach the majors at some point this year.
But Akin, Zimmermann and Baumann have made strong early impressions that they’ll deserve a role when the prospects do arrive. Akin and Baumann have shown potential to thrive in the bullpen, while Zimmermann, the only one of this group to secure a rotation spot, pitched four scoreless innings, doing more than enough to stay in that role.
“It was everything that I could have asked for and more,” Zimmermann said.
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde was pleased with how both Zimmermann and Baumann handled the atmosphere, pitching in front of a sold-out Camden Yards crowd for the first time. Zimmermann let out an emphatic yell after an inning-ending strikeout in the second and left the bases loaded in the third, while Baumann shook off a walk to his first batter to fire 2 1/3 shutout innings while repeatedly reaching 98 mph with his fastball.
“I’m impressed by both those young guys,” Hyde said. “I was concerned that Zim and Mike might be a little too amped up. I think Mike was when he first got out there, but then he really settled in, and both guys handled it extremely well.”
Of course, they’ll have to keep it up, but the early returns have been strong. Wells very well could have the chance to continue the trend Tuesday with Baltimore yet to announce who will start. Lowther might have been an option for the call-up had he not started for Norfolk on Sunday.
Kremer showed improved confidence and stuff in spring training and might have displayed both in a season debut Sunday if not for the injury, which Hyde said will keep him out for about a month at the minimum.
Perhaps, when he returns, Kremer will be able to make as solid of a new first impression as Akin, Zimmermann and Baumann.
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