It had been several hours and one cross-country flight since Spenser Watkins received his first big league call, and by his own admission, he still could not stop shaking. Could you blame him? A 30th-round Draft pick of the Tigers back in 2014, Watkins spent parts of seven seasons in the Minors before seeing his No. 80 Orioles jersey hanging from the visitors’ clubhouse last week in Houston, persevering through miniscule odds, a global pandemic and considerable sacrifice to, at age 28, reach the Majors. Of course he was shaking: his elation turned physical, his gratitude plain to see.
“Getting to the big leagues after the years I’ve put into this, I can’t put it into words,” Watkins said at the time, choking up with emotion. “It means everything for me and my family.”
It was with that as a backdrop that Watkins, summoned to plug the latest hole in the Orioles’ leaky rotation, consummated his journey in style Tuesday night at Oriole Park. Holding the Blue Jays to a lone run over five solid innings, Watkins starred in Baltimore’s 7-5 win over Toronto, earning his first big league victory in his first big league start. Backed by two-run homers from Pedro Severino, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander, it was an effort that earned Watkins at least another turn through the O’s rotation, with John Means and Bruce Zimmermann sidelined through the All-Star break.
“I thought he threw with no fear,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We haven’t gone five innings very often, so to see a starter go five innings was fantastic. I was pleased with how he competed and the stuff that he showed.”
With his agent and father-in-law Craig McGowan in attendance, Watkins cracked for his only run on Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s sacrifice fly in the first inning, then responded by holding the Jays to two singles over the next four frames. The rookie right-hander did walk three, but he also struck out two and stranded runners in four of his five frames. He became the first Orioles starter to earn a victory since June 8, the first to complete at least five innings since June 25, and first to win his first MLB start since Dean Kremer on Sept. 6, 2020.
“There were absolutely some nerves going on,” Watkins said. “Today it was about the adrenaline, the excitement of that first start. The nerves were definitely there but adrenaline was showing through.”
And it almost never happened. While he pondered his future last winter, Watkins lined up a job to take over the freshman baseball team at Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix, if another pro ball opportunity didn’t arise. Watkins spent time over the past few offseasons training young athletes, coaching youth teams while his career appeared to flatline in the Tigers system, where he plateaued at Triple-A in both '18 and '19. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
Watkins considered retiring when the baseball industry shut down, taking his Triple-A roster spot with it. But he didn’t. The Orioles came calling with a Minor League deal in February, and Watkins pitched to a 3.58 ERA over his first seven appearances (six starts) at Triple-A Norfolk, while the big league roster weathered immense churn. Eighty-five games into 2021, Watkins is the 29th pitcher the Orioles have used this season, and 12th to start a game.
“I was pretty close [to retiring],” Watkins said. “Going through 2020 like everybody else did, there was a lot of uncertainty. There was a lot of pressure for me to figure out a way to provide for my family. It was an option for me to step away at the time and pursue coaching. Then I was lucky enough to get the call.”
Seven years and 123 Minor League appearances later, it finally came. Now Watkins is ready to seize his long-awaited chance.
“There is a lot of season left, and we’re going to need people to pitch innings for us,” Hyde said. “Hopefully Spenser can continue to throw like that.”
"It feels incredible," Watkins said. "If anything, it pushes me to get ready for that next start right away. I’d love to soak it in but I am ready to get my feet back on the ground and get to work. Being relied on to eat innings is a huge thing -- it’s something I’ve prided myself on throughout my career. To be blessed with that opportunity is massive for me.”