In what was their first significant in-season COVID-19 issue since the pandemic began, the Orioles abruptly learned Tuesday evening they’d need to sideline starting right fielder Anthony Santander and Wednesday’s probable starter, Keegan Akin, due to protocols. One of their first calls went from pitching coach Chris Holt to rookie left-hander Alexander Wells, who was inactive but on the team’s taxi squad, and suddenly at 11:30 p.m. ET, roughly 12 hours away from making his first Major League start.
Wells immediately hopped on the phone, too. He called his brother, Lachlan, a pitcher in the Twins’ system to relay the news. He called his parents and girlfriend back home in Australia, surprising them at around 1:30 p.m. local time. The game, though, was set for 12:10 p.m. ET Wednesday -- which translates to 2:10 a.m. Down Under. To watch Wells become the first Australia native to start for the Orioles since Damian Moss in 2003, serious coffee would be required.
“Everyone set their alarm bright and early,” Wells said. “I’m sure they’re back asleep right now.”
For the Orioles, the sudden pivot worsened an already thin roster situation; even after getting ace John Means back Tuesday, they still have 10 players on the 40-man on one injured list or another, and only seven healthy 40-man players at Triple-A Norfolk. It was with that as a backdrop they dropped Wednesday’s dramatic, back-and-forth series finale, 5-4, to the Rays at Tropicana Field, despite Wells’ solid starting debut. Holding the Rays’ All-Star-laden lineup to three runs over 5 2/3 innings, Wells was in line to win before Tampa Bay stormed back against Tanner Scott to walk off in the ninth.
Attempting to procure his first save, Scott, a trade candidate heading into next week’s Deadline, struck out two while loading the bases in the ninth, clinging to a 4-3 lead. He then got ahead 0-2 to Austin Meadows, who rocketed a two-run, game-winning single to center to deny the Orioles what would’ve been their first series win in St. Petersburg since June 2017. They’ve now lost 11 straight series at Tropicana Field.
“We were one strike away,” O’s manager Brandon Hyde said. “We’re putting guys in spots they really haven’t been in.”
Benefiting on Wednesday was Wells, whom the Orioles signed for $300,000 as an international free agent out of Newcastle in 2015. Their No. 17 prospect per MLB Pipeline, Wells earned a reputation in the Minors as a control artist, known for his ability to generate soft contact and infinitesimal walk rate. Navigating the Rays lineup Wednesday required command, but also composure, after Wells surrendered a leadoff home run to his first batter, Randy Arozarena. He then walked two of his next four hitters before settling down, ultimately striking out seven. He left with a 4-3 lead due in large part to Ryan Mountcastle, who put Baltimore ahead with a solo homer in the fourth and a clutch single in the sixth.
“He really competed,” Hyde said of Wells. “He doesn’t have the fastball that is going to blow by people or the plus, plus stuff. But he does compete with what he has and did a nice job of commanding the baseball after the second inning.”
Whether it was a glimpse of more to come remains unclear. Baltimore officials declined to comment on anything related to Akin’s situation, citing team policies that have been in place since last year. But it’s not as if the Orioles’ rotation is etched in marble. Wells was already the 13th Orioles pitcher to start a game this season, and opportunity remains given injuries to Bruce Zimmermann, Zac Lowther and now Akin. The irony being, in this particular situation, that Wells spent 2020 stuck in Australia due to international travel restrictions, while almost all the Orioles' other top prospects trained at their alternate site.
Wells, meanwhile, was limited to pitching bullpens and in local scrimmages during the pandemic. He then missed most of Spring Training with an oblique injury, and got off to a tough start at Triple-A Norfolk, pitching to a 9.88 ERA over his first month. But his numbers stabilized in June and he finished the month with two big league appearances, both in long relief. On Wednesday he became the 13th Australian-born pitcher to start a game in MLB history, and third Oriole to accomplish the feat.
“I tried to get some sleep last night, managed to get a little bit. I’m glad it was a day game, because I didn’t have much time to think about anything,” Wells said. “Knowing my stuff can play here gives me confidence going into my next appearance.”