From barn to Baltimore: Akin's Majors debut

August 15th, 2020

Finally, Keegan Akin’s wait is over. The Orioles’ No. 13 prospect, per MLB Pipeline, debuted with three-plus innings of long relief in the Orioles’ 15-3 loss to the Nationals on Friday, the defeat snapping their six-game win streak. Akin retired nine of the first 11 hitters he faced, but labored in his fourth inning, ultimately allowing three runs on two hits.

In doing so, Akin became the first of a mini-wave of Orioles prospects expected to debut this season to arrive. He could be followed shortly by No. 5 prospect Ryan Mountcastle, and perhaps Dean Kremer (No. 10) after that.

Akin was optioned after the game, but even if the direct result of his workload Friday was a ticket back to the alternate site, chances are he won’t be there for long.

Back home in Western Michigan during quarantine, Akin, like so many ballplayers, suddenly needed a place to train. He didn’t have to look far. Winters are difficult where the 25-year-old lefty grew up, so years ago, he and his father built a barn in their backyard for Akin to throw in during the colder months.

He’d graduated to more advanced facilities as his prospect status grew, often commuting upwards of an hour to lift and throw. But with those closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Akin migrated back to the barn, knowing, in his words, “it was an important year and those days were crucial at home.”

Important because, after spending all of 2019 at Triple-A Norfolk refining his secondary mix, Akin knew his Major League debut was imminent. Then the pandemic struck, and baseball’s shutdown stretched months. Then he was sent directly to the Orioles alternate training site for Summer Camp, ensuring he would not make their Opening Day roster. Even after the club promoted Akin last weekend, he sat unused in the Orioles’ ‘pen for six days while they racked up win after win.

“I waited my whole life for this,” Akin said. “It’s been a big goal since I was 16, 17. It was fun and I’m happy to get the first one out of the way.”

For the better part of a week, Brandon Hyde searched for a low-leverage situation for Akin to get his feet wet in. It came at the result of a tough-luck outing from Tommy Milone, who allowed six runs (three earned), but was largely befallen by batted-ball luck and bad defense behind him. Of the nine hits Milone allowed, only three were hard-hit by Statcast’s exit velocity qualifications, and only one of Washington’s three run-scoring hits over the first three frames.

He was particularly hurt by a Hanser Alberto error, an unturned double play and ill-timed Anthony Santander dive that turned into a two-run Yan Gomes triple. Last year, the Orioles were one of baseball’s two worst defensive teams. But that hasn’t been the story for much of 2020, which is what made Friday’s effort so notable. The O’s were held in check offensively by Erick Fedde, who fired 5 1/3 shutout innings after Stephen Strasburg departed early with an apparent hand injury.

“I was a little nervous on Saturday and Sunday, but after that the nerves kind of wore off and the anxiety kicked in,” said Akin, a career starter who pitched in relief just once since his freshman year of college. “I think that helped. I was kind of clueless going in. I just took a deep breath and said: ‘You got this.’”

As it was, Akin entered in the fifth inning of a five-run game and retired the first four batters he faced, including the also-debuting Luis García for his first career punchout. He walked one and allowed little hard contact -- outside of Asdrubal Cabrera’s opposite field solo homer -- until the eighth, when a hit batsman and Gomes double ended his night. Both inherited runners scored in Washington’s six-run eighth against Cody Carroll.

Both this year and last, the Orioles were cautious to promote Akin while he worked to develop his secondary pitches and improve command. He flashed all three of his pitches Friday, ultimately leaning on the 90-93-mph high-spin fastball that made him Baltimore’s second-round Draft pick in 2016, and the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year two years later. A quarter of his 48 pitches were sliders, including the third strike to García. He also induced a weak flyout from Trea Turner on one of the two changeups he threw.

“I was really encouraged by the way he threw the ball,” Hyde said. “Really nice life to his fastball, really good tempo. He flashed some decent breaking balls. He went out there and attacked hitters.”