Watkins' 'incredible ride' isn't over yet

After another impressive start, Orioles' 28-year-old rookie is assured of at least one more

July 20th, 2021

With John Means set to return to the mound Tuesday, a shaky performance from on Monday at Tropicana Field could’ve marked the end of the 28-year-old rookie’s storybook run from Minor League journeyman to steadying presence in the Orioles’ big league rotation. But Watkins delivered the opposite.

Watkins instead made his strongest case yet to stay not only in the big leagues, but as one of the Orioles’ regular starters, providing the foundation for the club’s 6-1 win over the Rays. Navigating 2 1/2 times through the Rays’ lineup, Watkins struck out seven while holding Tampa Bay’s All-Star-laden lineup to one run over six innings. The effort improved Watkins, who spent seven seasons in the Minors before debuting on July 2, to 2-0 with 1.76 ERA over his first four games (three starts).

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Watkins’ ERA is the sixth lowest in Orioles history (since 1954) through four career games (minimum 15 innings). 

“I’ve dreamed my entire career to have success in the big leagues, and to be able to do that three times in a row is incredible,” Watkins said. “It just pushes me to keep getting better, keep working. Complacency is not an option for me. Continue to work, continue to get better and keep doing it. It’s been an incredible ride so far, and I’m enjoying the heck out of it.”

Watkins earned Monday’s victory in part due to a team effort against old Orioles nemesis Ryan Yarbrough, whom Baltimore jumped on for two first-inning runs and chased with a four-run sixth. The main contributions came from Austin Hays (three hits, one RBI and one run scored) and Pat Valaika and Kelvin Gutierrez, who had two-out RBI hits in the sixth. The O’s matched their season-high three-game win streak with their first win in seven tries against the Rays this season, and they saddled Yarbrough with his first loss since April 30.

The win also brought more squarely into focus the early success of Watkins, who had a career 6.50 ERA at Triple-A before his callup in late June. Less than a month later, he is the first Orioles pitcher this season to allow one run or fewer in three consecutive starts, doing so in the first three of his career.

“He’s going to make his next start,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He’s a great story, and I like that he’s pitching with confidence. The home plate umpire [D.J. Reyburn], who I’ve known for a long time, mentioned to me that he was impressed with his stuff. He was surprised [Watkins] hasn’t been in the big leagues very long, because of the crispness of his stuff and how he could command.”

Said Rays manager Kevin Cash: “Watkins threw a good ballgame. He had a good fastball. The cutter, it’s a unique cutter that creates a little carry and just kept us off-balance. We couldn’t get him timed up.”

That cutter is what earned Watkins fans in the Orioles' player development department prior to his callup, and it is fueling his improbable run. Multiple times Monday night, Watkins credited Orioles pitching coaches Chris Holt and Darren Holmes for elevating his four-pitch arsenal, which also includes a low-90s fastball, curveball and seldom-used changeup. He’s using the cutter 19 percent of the time, and opponents are 6-for-23 (.261) with four strikeouts and no extra-base hits off it.

“The ability that I have has always been in there,” Watkins said. “I’ve learned entirely who I am as a pitcher. I’ve always kind of had an idea, but the ability of this staff to maximize who I am as a pitcher and upgrade me, in a sense. I’m still me, but I think there are some upgrades that came along with working different things and learning how to maximize my stuff. It’s been incredible.”

Of the starters in jeopardy of relegation with Means returning, swingman Thomas Eshelman (8.35 ERA) and left-hander Keegan Akin (12.21 ERA since mid-June) would seem to be the most vulnerable. Both have Minor League options and experience relieving, and due to off-days, the O’s don’t need a fifth starter again until July 31. At least until then, they’ll continue with a rotation of Means, Matt Harvey, Jorge López and Watkins.

It’s a bittersweet arrangement. The Orioles are thrilled Means is healthy and developing as he has, and they're pleasantly surprised by what they’ve gotten from Watkins. But Harvey didn’t develop into a trade candidate, and López (2-12, 6.04 ERA) is largely idling. Meanwhile, none of the prospects the O's hoped would break through this season -- Akin, Zac Lowther, Dean Kremer, Alexander Wells -- has made a lasting impression. Akin and Kremer have arguably taken steps backward.

The upshot is an opportunity for players like Watkins, whose early returns resemble those of Asher Wojciechowski in 2019. A fellow Minor League journeyman, Wojciechowski went on to spend the better parts of two seasons in the Orioles’ rotation, enjoying some high points along the way. Watkins was ready to retire into the high school coaching ranks before the Orioles came calling this February with a Minor League deal. His summer now consists of other plans, with more to come.

“Today was amazing,” Valaika said. “Since he’s gotten here it’s been impressive what he’s done. He fills up the zone, and he’s not afraid at all.”