'It's just different': O's glad to return to action

July 20th, 2020

Upon lacing an RBI single off Zack Wheeler in the fourth inning Sunday night at Citizens Bank Park, Orioles second baseman Hanser Alberto rounded first base, motioned to the dugout in celebration, returned to the bag ... and then was politely told to leave. Wheeler had reached his desired pitch count for the inning, so the frame was rolled after one out, and both teams dissolved into their dugouts without issue or argument.

It was one of many reminders that Sunday’s 4-1 victory over the Phillies, at least officially, did not count. But that truth was largely overshadowed by the fact that the game was happening at all, with competitive baseball returning for the Orioles for the first time in more than four months. Sure, they’d spent the past few weeks competing among themselves in intrasquads at Oriole Park. But this offered all the oddities that have come along with those workouts -- an empty stadium, socially distanced dugouts, the occasional ambient noise delay -- in a new environment: on the road, and against another team. A trial run, manager Brandon Hyde likened it to.

And if it was a sign of things to come, they have to be pleased.

“It was different, especially being gone for so long,” said spot starter , a former Philly farmhand. “But what we did to prepare was shown tonight as a team and I’m really looking forward to the season.”

Starting in place of staff ace John Means, Eshelman struck out five over 4 2/3 scoreless innings in an emergency capacity, scattering just four singles. For Eshelman, the performance underscored the chance of him inheriting Means’ Opening Day assignment Friday if the lefty, who is battling through arm fatigue, is sidelined.

“That’s a Major League lineup -- he’s facing seven All-Stars the first seven hitters in that lineup,” Hyde said. “He pitched with a lot of confidence tonight. That was just an outstanding performance.”

Tanner Scott thrived in his first taste of MLB’s new three-batter minimum, striking out Bryce Harper and Didi Gregorius with 97 mph heat and a heavy diet of sliders. Miguel Castro struck out two and allowed one run in his appearance, and Cody Carroll and Cole Sulser each logged scoreless outings.

On the offensive side, Pedro Severino, Cedric Mullins, Pat Valaika and Ryan Mountcastle each hit solo homers, with Mountcastle’s coming in the top of the 10th after the sides played an extra and unofficial half inning. Mullins complemented his homer by also taking one away, a surefire long ball from JT Realmuto at the center-field wall in the sixth.

Stevie Wilkerson added to the defensive highlight reel with a sliding play in the second, but it was an effort that left him with an injury to his left ring finger, and one that could ultimately end up deciding what was a crowded competition for a few open utility roles off the bench. Valaika helped his case in that regard with his solo homer off Austin Davis in the ninth.

The Orioles also removed Austin Hays after he was struck in the left knee by a pitch in the fourth, but only for precautionary reasons. They now head home Monday to host the Nationals in their lone exhibition game at Oriole Park before playing in Washington on Tuesday ahead of Opening Day Friday against the Red Sox in Boston.

At some point, the kind of occasional, casual weirdness that transpired Sunday might be considered routine. But it remains notable now, given the novelty. Besides the lack of fans in the stands and safety measures -- Orioles coaches and staff wore masks in the dugout; Gregorius was spotted with one on the field -- a curious scene unfolded when Eshelman pitched to Andrew McCutchen to a soundtrack of ambient noise in the first inning, feedback from the TV broadcast being replayed in-stadium. Distracted, McCutchen stepped out until the issue was fixed, and Eshelman promptly struck the former MVP out.

“I was like, 'Whoa, is this normal?'” Eshelman said. “I guess we’re just going to have to get used to it.”

Some players didn’t decompress in the dugouts, going above and beyond the social distancing outlines in place; reserve catcher Taylor Davis could be seen reclining in the stands behind home plate, towel around his neck. The Phillies batted out of order without penalty later in the game; the two teams also played a 10th inning, during which the Orioles scored a fifth run, despite the outcome decided in regulation. Some are pandemic-related hiccups, some are just the casual nature of exhibition baseball.

All are part of Oriole baseball in 2020, which is officially back.

“We’re getting used to it,” Hyde said. “It’s definitely different, but we’re getting used to it in that we’re getting used to talking with masks on our face, having to talk over the crowd noise they’re playing to buzz up the ballpark. We’re catching ourselves after innings not being able to bring gloves out to guys … we’re used to some old habits that our guys are adjusting too. It’s just different.”