With Adley Rutschman in majors, hope stands behind home plate for the Orioles

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BALTIMORE — For the first time in far too long, hope stood behind home plate at Camden Yards on Saturday night.

It sat on the 24-year-old shoulders of catcher Adley Rutschman, the top prospect in baseball, the centerpiece of a slow-moving rebuild that plodded through Aberdeen, Delmarva and Frederick, then to Bowie and on to Norfolk.

Not until Rutschman stood there with his helmet in hand, warehouse at his back, did that rebuild officially arrive in Baltimore. Not until the crowd at Camden Yards stood and cheered him, until he paused and turned to watch them do it, did glimpses of a better future start to pixelate the present.

Since Orioles General Manager Mike Elias and his front office took over before the 2019 season, he has insisted that a few years without hope were the only way to a future full of it. That future was always supposed to be led by Rutschman, Elias’s first draft pick, the do-it-all college star who wore orange and black at Oregon State and seemed destined to do the same in the majors.

But baseball does not make way for destiny as often as it derails it, and everyone at Camden Yards on Saturday night knew full well that one player cannot rescue one of the major leagues’ most determinedly destitute franchises in a night, a week or even a year. His manager, Brandon Hyde, said he wanted to put “zero expectations” on Rutschman. Rutschman said before the game that he just wanted to be himself.

Yet after years of looking for someone, anyone, to give life to Baltimore’s baseball dreams, Rutschman walked into Oriole Park as a symbol before he ever caught a big league pitch.

Rutschman jerseys with his No. 35 already peppered the stands alongside dozens of Ripkens and Joneses and Mullinses and Mancinis. Those in the crowd roared and many stood when Rutschman’s named was announced in the starting lineup. Fans clamored to the netting just beyond the Orioles’ dugout to cheer him as he headed to the outfield to warm up starter Kyle Bradish, and they gave him a standing ovation on his way back.

Orioles fans haven’t had much reason to clamor after anyone in recent years. In fact, until about 8 a.m. Saturday morning, the hottest ticket in Baltimore on Saturday night was supposed to be the Preakness, which began about four minutes before Rutschman’s tenure. But early Saturday, when the Orioles announced the 24-year-old would debut Saturday night, the evening transformed into what Trey Mancini said he told friends and family was probably the most exciting night in Baltimore since the 2014 playoffs.

“Adley probably wins the hype race, probably,” said Mancini, one of the few players who have stayed long enough and played well enough to endear themselves to Baltimore fans in Elias’s tenure. “Because the Preakness happens every year.”

Prospects such as Rutschman, a first overall pick who became baseball’s top overall prospect on his way to his major league debut, only come along once in a long while.

As Rutschman’s college and minor league highlights played on MLB Network on a television above, the most reliable starter of these recent Orioles seasons, John Means, balanced a pool cue on his left arm. A massive robotic-looking brace envelops that arm these days because Means is just a month removed from Tommy John surgery. His injury was a devastating one for his young team, which anticipated making great strides this year with a largely inexperienced rotation anchored by the relative veteran. Means, who agreed to a two-year deal to avoid arbitration Saturday afternoon, called it “a big day” but not because his deal was done.

“It’s Adley Rutschman day,” he said in earnest.

If all goes well, Means will be remembered as one of the stars of the interregnum, a bridge from the bad days to the good ones, should they materialize. And if all goes well, Rutschman will help mold that young pitching staff into one capable of navigating the unforgiving American League East. People around the Orioles talk about his defensive capabilities more than anything, his pitch framing, his habit of jogging out to debrief and strategize with his pitcher at the end of every inning.

Orioles starters are pitching to a 4.35 ERA, 23rd in baseball, a hundredth of a run behind the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves. Last year, they were dead last with a 5.99 mark. The most visible progress is in the bullpen, which owned the worst ERA in the majors by more than half a run last year. Entering Saturday night, Baltimore relievers had the sixth-lowest ERA in the majors, better than every AL East rival but the New York Yankees.

“We’re turning a corner,” said Hyde, who managed as the Orioles went 131-253 with no expectation of anything better from 2019 to 2021. “We’re starting to play competitive AL East baseball.”

Hyde said that as he talked to some of the Orioles’ video staff about the Rays’ pitchers for Saturday night, it hit him: “It was fun to write the lineup out today,” he said.

Emerging middle-of-the-order staple Ryan Mountcastle returned from injury. Cedric Mullins, an all-star last season, and proven slugger Mancini joined the increasingly reliable Austin Hays and Anthony Santander at the top of the order. Rutschman landed sixth in what many people around the team agreed was one of the deeper lineups the Orioles have written since the beginning of Elias’s tenure.

That lineup staged multiple comebacks in a memorable 13-inning walk-off win against the Rays on Friday night, a win Mancini called “quite possibly the best win I’ve been a part of in my time here.” The Rays, who offer some hope to the Orioles that competing in the AL East doesn’t require spending exorbitantly, beat the Orioles in 18 of 19 games in 2021.

“It’s been a process since the day we got here,” Hyde said with a laugh that implied the word “process” is an understatement. “There’s been a lot of ups and downs. We’re still going through a lot of things. But it means a lot to have [Mike Elias’s] first pick get here.”

Rutschman, they hope, is one of many promising young players that will join them here this year. More, such as pitchers Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall and shortstop Gunnar Henderson, should be ready soon. They will need time to develop. They may not succeed. Rutschman, for example, watched Randy Arozarena dampen any hopes of an undefeated Orioles tenure with a two-run homer in his very first inning of major league work.

But what Rutschman carried to the plate was something Camden Yards crowds hadn’t seen in quite some time, a feeling that didn’t dissipate when he struck out in his first major league at-bat, a sensation audible in the standing ovation they gave him as he walked back to the dugout after swinging through strike three. Hope settled in behind home plate in Baltimore on Saturday night. Maybe, just maybe, it will stay for quite some time.

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