Only when Rutschman stood there with his helmet in hand, stockpiled on his back, did that reconstruction officially arrive in Baltimore. Not until the crowd at Camden Yards stood cheering over him until he paused and turned to watch them do so did glimpses of a better future begin to pixelate the present.
Since Oriole’s General Manager Mike Elias and his front office took over before the 2019 season, he has insisted that a few years without hope was the only way to a future full of it. That future was always to be led by Rutschman, Elias’ first draft pick, the college star who does it all, who wore orange and black in Oregon State and seemed to do the same in majors.
But baseball does not make room for fate as often as it derails, and everyone at Camden Yards on Saturday night knew full well that one player could not save one of the major leagues’ most decidedly distressed franchises in a night, a week or even one year. His manager, Brandon Hyde, said he wanted to set “zero expectations” for Rutschman. Rutschman said before the match that he just wanted to be himself.
Yet after years of looking for someone, anyone, to bring Baltimore’s baseball dreams to life, Rutschman entered Oriole Park as a symbol, even before storming into third base with his first major league hit – a triple in the right field corner – in the seventh. He finished 1 for 3 with a turn in a game that the Orioles lost, 6-1, one of the happiest nights at the Camden Yards in years.
Rutschman jerseys with its No. 35 already filled the stands along with dozens of Ripkens and Joneses and Mullinses and Mancinis. Those in the crowd roared and many stood up when Rutschman’s named was announced in the starting lineup. Fans shouted on the net just behind Orioles’ blacksmith to cheer him on as he walked towards the outfield to warm up starter Kyle Bradish and they gave him a standing ovation on the way back.
Orioles fans have not had much reason to shout for anyone in recent years. In fact, until about 6 p.m. 8 Saturday morning, the hottest ticket in Baltimore on Saturday night was to be Preakness, which began about four minutes before Rutschman’s term. But when the Orioles announced that the 24-year-old would debut that night, it turned into what Trey Mancini said he told friends and family was probably the most exciting night in Baltimore since the 2014 playoffs.
“Adley is likely to win the hype race,” said Mancini, one of the few players who has been long enough and played well enough to love Baltimore fans during Elias’ tenure. “Because Preakness happens every year.”
Prospects like Rutschman, a first overall pick that became baseball’s best overall prospect on the way to his major league debut, only show up once in a while.
When Rutschman’s highlights in college and minor league played on the MLB Network on a television above, the most reliable starter in recent Orioles seasons, John Means, balanced a pool queue on his left arm. A massive, robot-like brace encloses that arm these days because Means is only a month away from Tommy John surgery. His injury was devastating for his young team, who expected to make great strides this year with a largely inexperienced rotation anchored by the relative veteran. Means, who agreed to a two-year contract to avoid arbitration on Saturday afternoon, called it “a big day” – but not because his deal was terminated.
“It’s Adley Rutschman Day,” he said seriously.
If all goes well, Means will be remembered as one of the stars of the interregnum, a bridge from the bad days to the good ones if they were to become a reality. And if all goes well, Rutschman will help shape the young pitching employee into someone capable of navigating the relentless American League East. People around the Orioles talk about his defensive abilities more than anything else, his pitch-framing, his habit of jogging out to debrief and strategize with his pitcher at the end of each inning.
By Saturday, the Orioles starters went for a 4.35 ERA, 23rd in baseball, one-hundredth of a race behind defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves. Last year, they were dead last with a mark of 5.99. The most visible progress is in the bullpen, which owned the worst ERA in majors with more than half a race last year. Before Saturday’s game, Baltimore relievers had the seventh-lowest ERA in majors, better than all AL East rivals except the New York Yankees.
“We’re turning a corner,” said Hyde, who did well as the Orioles went 131-253 with no expectation of anything better from 2019 to 2021. “We’re starting to play competitive AL East baseball.”
Hyde said that when he spoke to some of the Orioles ‘video staff about the Rays’ pitchers on Saturday night, it struck him, “It was fun writing the lineup today.”
New center staple Ryan Mountcastle returned from injury. Cedric Mullins, an all-star last season, and proven slugger Mancini joined the increasingly reliable Austin Hays and Anthony Santander at the top of the row. Rutschman landed in sixth place in what many people around the team agreed was one of the deeper lineups that Orioles has written since the beginning of Elias’ tenure.
This lineup staged several comebacks in a memorable 13-innings walk-off win against the Rays Friday night, a win that Mancini called “possibly the best win I’ve been a part of in my time here.” The Rays, who give the Orioles some hope that competing in the AL East do not require unreasonable expenses, beat the Orioles in 18 out of 19 games in 2021.
“It’s been a process since the day we got here,” Hyde said with a laugh, suggesting the word “process” is an understatement. “There have been many ups and downs. We are still going through a lot of things. But it means a lot to have [Elias’s] first choice came here. “
Rutschman, they hope, is one of many promising young players who will join them this year. Several, such as throwers Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall and shortstop Gunnar Henderson, should be ready soon. They will need time to develop. It may not succeed. Rutschman, for example, saw Randy Arozarena dampen any hopes of an undefeated Orioles tenure with a two-run homer in his very first round of Major League work.
But what Rutschman wore on the record was something the Camden Yards audience had not seen for a long time, a feeling that did not disappear when he struck out in his first major league bat, a sensation that could be heard in the standing ovations they gave. him as he went back to the dugout after swinging through line three – an expectation that turned to cheers as he rounded out second place and was heading for third place in a match that his team was five races behind too late. Hope settled down behind the home plate in Baltimore Saturday night. Maybe, just maybe, it will stay on for a while.