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Orioles reset: Patience will be necessary for Grayson Rodriguez — and fans — after injury as rebuild shows cracks

In another world, one in which the inevitability of injuries didn’t strike, the Orioles rotation might already include the star-studded talent the front office is banking on working out for a rebuild to be successful. There would be a healthy John Means and Grayson Rodriguez. DL Hall wouldn’t have had his own injury setback last season.

But in this reality, injuries are as much part of the game as balls and strikes — particularly for pitchers. Those injuries can strike at any time, and they aren’t picky about whether a player is a highly touted prospect or a key cog in Baltimore’s plans. There’s no choosing.

“Baseball’s tough,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said. “That’s all I can say. It’s tough. Hard sport to have everything clicking at the same time, but we’ll just keep grinding away.”

That’s all the Orioles can do, even if the rebuild has been stalled by those injuries. At first, it was catcher Adley Rutschman, whose right tricep strain just as major league spring training began prevented him from making the opening day roster. Next came the Grade 2 right lat muscle strain Rodriguez suffered, which Elias said Sunday could end his 2022 season.

There was Hall’s stress reaction in his left elbow last year and Means’ Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in April. They cast a pall over the plans Baltimore has. Without those major setbacks, the rotation could boast three standout arms — one proven big leaguer and two top prospects — as well as Rutschman, the top prospect in baseball, behind the plate.

But as those injuries stack up — and the production from Rutschman now that he’s arrived in Baltimore lags behind expectations — there’s a reminder. Rebuilds require patience, and while there’s already been plenty of it already as Orioles fans sat through 100-loss seasons in each of the last three full campaigns, there will be more patience required still.

The Orioles were close to having Rodriguez, the top pitching prospect in baseball, at the big league level. He had checked just about every box he could’ve in Triple-A, earning the International League’s Pitcher of the Month award for May. Now Rodriguez could be out until September, if not longer, prolonging the waiting game for the organization to reach full-go on the rebuild.

“It really stinks,” Elias said. “It’s kind of a repeat of what happened to Rutschman, in terms of just the timing. They put in so much work, you’re sitting there and you’re basically through your Triple-A experience. This happens. It’s adversity.”

Elias attempted to spin that adversity as a positive, pitching the idea that Rodriguez will be stronger once he returns. But the delays are wearisome at the same time.

There’s no pretending Baltimore would’ve been a win-now team this season had the injuries to Hall, Means, Rutschman and Rodriguez been avoided. The Orioles always appeared a year away, with 2023 the target to begin ramping up.

Rutschman has hit the ball hard but has little to show for it, holding a .137 average through 51 at-bats, and he’s 0 for his last 17. The message there is patience, too.

“It’s such a small sample right now. You can’t worry about the results,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “It’s a tough level to break into. And he’s gonna be just fine. We just need to be patient and stay positive and support him.”

Means might not return to the rotation until midway through next season. Hall remains in Triple-A, working his pitch count up while proving he can go deeper into outings. And Elias figured Rodriguez will break 2023 spring training with the Orioles, but he’ll be without the wealth of experience he might’ve gained this year.

“You look across the league, this stuff happens,” Elias said. “When I was in Houston, we had a time in 2014, Carlos Correa broke his ankle right as he was about to be promoted from High-A to Double-A. At the time, it was tough. But you get through it and he’s who he is. And that’s going to be what this is for Grayson: a blip on the radar screen.”

But when there are several blips, it becomes more taxing. And it requires more patience, even when there has been more than enough patience expended already.

After all, Elias said it best: “Baseball’s tough.”

What’s to come?

The Orioles are off Monday before a two-game series against the Chicago Cubs at Camden Yards wraps up a homestand. From there, Baltimore travels to Kansas City and Toronto to play four games each, pitting Rutschman against the player chosen directly after him in the 2019 draft.

The last time the Royals and Orioles met, infielder Bobby Witt Jr. was at Camden Yards, but Rutschman wasn’t. There’s some similarity between the players, extending beyond the draft placement. With Rutschman scuffling through 13 games, Witt did the same, hitting .184 with 15 strikeouts and no homers in the same timeframe to begin his major league career.

Since then, Witt has turned things around. He now has seven homers with a .224 average. For all the hard contact from Rutschman, a turnaround similar to Witt’s is expected.

What was good?

Last week, first baseman Ryan Mountcastle struck out 11 times over seven games and hit just .179. But when he clobbered a two-run home run Sunday, it capped what has been a more impressive seven days.

“There was a little frustration behind that one,” Mountcastle said. “I was having good at-bats the last week or so. Just felt like things weren’t going my way. To get that one out there felt pretty good.”

In his seven games this week, Mountcastle crushed three homers and hit .292. He walked five times and struck out just twice. That performance is closer to what Mountcastle expects from himself.

What wasn’t?

The Great Wall of Baltimore had a rough week. It had seemed so imposing, with the New York Yankees and even Trey Mancini criticizing the sheer mass of it — and how that complicated things for a right-handed hitter attempting to hit home runs.

But as the weather has warmed, the ball has flown off bats and scaled that mountain, as if the extra 20-some feet of distance and six extra feet in wall height hasn’t imposed hitters at all. There were bombs from Mountcastle and Ramón Urías in consecutive at-bats Wednesday. Then Austin Hays added a three-run shot over the wall on Saturday.

There were still a few bombs taken away, but the wall is not as much of a hindrance in June as it was earlier.

On the farm

Hall earned his first Triple-A win of his career Sunday, allowing two runs on two hits in five innings. He struck out a season-high nine batters and completed five innings for the first time. His development has been slow going, a precaution after his season-ending elbow injury in 2021.

But as Hall finds success in Norfolk, there’s a chance a promotion could be on the way — if he proves to Elias he’s capable of pitching deeper into games. As the rebuild took a hit with Rodriguez’s injury, Hall’s progression is a slight salve, albeit a minor one.

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Tuesday, 7:05 p.m.

TV: MASN2

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