SARASOTA, Fla. — Adley Rutschman has lived the moment once, behind the plate in orange and black, squeezing the final strikeout to win the World Series.
“It’s the best five minutes of your life,” Rutschman said one morning here by his locker before a spring training practice. “Just, like, an unbelievable high. And it’s amazing how the moment comes and goes, and you’re on to achieving the next goal. You work eight months in order to get those five minutes.”
It has been almost 21 million minutes — give or take a few thousand — since the Baltimore Orioles experienced those euphoric five. It happened in Philadelphia in 1983, when Cal Ripken Jr. snagged a liner to clinch the championship. The Orioles have not returned to the World Series.
Rutschman won the college version in 2018 for Oregon State, a school that shares its colors with Baltimore. He batted cleanup in the last game against Nebraska, lashing three hits to finish with a .408 average for the season. He was even better the next year (.411 with more power) when the Orioles made him the first pick of the draft and the centerpiece of their reconstruction.
“He was our catcher, so he was always the head of everything,” said Cleveland Guardians outfielder Steven Kwan, a teammate of Rutschman’s at Oregon State. “Our staff was why we won our championship, and even as a freshman, he was able to manage that load. He was consistent, he didn’t overthink things, he commanded respect and brought a lot out of you. That was always his big thing.”
Rutschman, 25, brought plenty out of the Orioles in his rookie season. The team was 16-24 last May 21 when Rutschman took the field in Baltimore for the first time as a major leaguer. He shook hands with the plate umpire, swiped at the dirt with his spikes and then turned around, scanning the three decks of Camden Yards, absorbing a standing ovation before pulling on his mask.
“When he soaked in that moment, his debut, not many young guys do that,” said Orioles starter Kyle Gibson. “It speeds up on them. You could tell the maturity was there. And now just seeing how he works, the conversations he has — he’s a stud.”
Gibson pitched for the Phillies last season and signed a one-year deal to be a stabilizer in the Baltimore rotation. Before he did, he spoke with a former teammate, Jordan Lyles, who had pitched for the Orioles last season and raved about Rutschman. The young catcher is an expert pitch framer, Lyles said, a disciplined, middle-of-the-order run producer, a future leader who knows how to handle the hype.
“Baltimore was waiting on him,” said Lyles, who now pitches for the Kansas City Royals. “Once he came up, the city started showing up a little bit more and we started winning. And then we had a long winning streak that kind of showed everyone that we could compete in the A.L. East even though we were young.”
Boosted by a 10-game winning streak in July, the Orioles were 12 games over .500 after Rutschman’s arrival to finish 83-79, a major-league-best 31-game improvement from 2021. Rutschman led the Orioles in wins above replacement and finished second to Seattle’s Julio Rodríguez in voting for the American League’s Rookie of the Year Award.
In doing so, Rutschman immediately established himself as the A.L.’s premier catcher, with an .806 on-base plus slugging percentage that ranked first among A.L. regulars. He batted .254 with 13 homers and 42 runs batted in, and despite the late start, only one A.L. catcher — Oakland’s Sean Murphy, who was traded to Atlanta in December — had more extra-base hits than Rutschman’s 49.
“He’s got an incredible ability to concentrate, just in the literal sense of the word, and he has an extreme amount of emotional control,” Orioles General Manager Mike Elias said. “I have yet to see him, in Year 5 now of following him, emote negatively or in a nonconstructive way — throw his bat, pout — other than a wry smirk if he gets rung up on a bad pitch.
“He’s very happy inside himself and able to control that, despite how grueling baseball can be in that regard, and I think it’s going to make him a very consistent major league player. For the players around him, it’s hard not to admire that, and it makes him a gravitational force.”
Elias came to the Orioles from the Houston Astros, who had mixed results with the first overall pick: shortstop Carlos Correa, who became a superstar; pitcher Mark Appel, who took a decade to reach the majors; and pitcher Brady Aiken, who did not sign and topped out at Class A.
Rutschman, though, was close to a can’t-miss pick: a high ceiling, as scouts say, but also a high floor. He reminded Elias of Correa and Alex Bregman — a No. 2 overall pick for Houston — in the way he commanded the field, even between pitches. That might seem natural for a catcher, Elias conceded, but there was something about Rutschman that exuded a genuine effort to make teammates better.
The position is an obvious fit for Rutschman, whose father, Randy, is former college catcher and coach with a specialty in catching instruction. Even so, Rutschman said, he only warmed to catching as a senior in high school, in Sherwood, Ore. He loved interacting with pitchers, he said, and welcomed the extra responsibility, even if he did not actively seek a leader’s role.
“It doesn’t come naturally for me,” Rutschman said. “I’d say the thing that I’ve tried to do throughout my life is just work as hard as I can and control the controllables: attitude, effort, the way I go about my business. And when people see that, hopefully they see that I’m going to work hard behind the plate, and that I care about them as people. As far as being vocal, I just try to be as authentic as I can about what I’m feeling at that time.”
The Orioles hope Rutschman can help their top starting prospects, Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall, adapt to the majors, and he brings enthusiasm to the task. After innings, Rutschman tends to greet pitchers on the field, before they even cross the foul line — a well-meaning habit that is endearing, to a point.
“He was going almost to the mound,” Lyles said, laughing, “and one of the guys made him stop doing that, like, ‘Just wait by the line.’”
Rutschman will not catch every day; Elias traded with the Mets for another catcher, James McCann, to help ease the load on a switch-hitting cornerstone who happens to play the game’s most demanding position. Rutschman will also see time at first base and designated hitter, part of a plan to maximize his impact with a young core that also includes infielder Gunnar Henderson, the consensus top prospect in the majors.
Yet for all the excitement around their young stars, the Orioles are taking a careful, considered approach to their roster. In a winter of wild spending across baseball, Elias signed four free agents (Gibson, second baseman Adam Frazier, reliever Mychal Givens and outfielder Franchy Cordero), all to one-year deals.
It was a modest haul for a team whose $50.6 million payroll, according to Spotrac, ranks 29th of the 30 teams (ahead of only Oakland) and will not soon challenge the competitive-balance tax.
“We’re trying to be really smart about running the Baltimore Orioles; I think it’s gotten us to this point and I think it’ll get us to the next point,” Elias said. “And we have to do things that make sense for our short-term, but also our long-term. We’re not a team that wants to be writing off mistakes on the back end. And I think it presents a little more of a nuanced operating model for the teams that are not in the stratosphere of the teams that are wrestling with the C.B.T. every year.
“So we went out this winter, we talked to a lot of people. In terms of outbidding another 29 other teams, it didn’t happen across the board, but we brought in a group that, to me, really stabilizes and helps protect the young talent that’s here but is allowing this young talent to kind of speak for itself over the next year or so.
“We will go back into the market next winter and see where we’re at then, too. I think it’s the right approach for running this team at this juncture and for what we’re looking to do — not just in 2023, but through the rest of the 2020s. But we will be judged on the results.”
The result, they hope, is that Rutschman can relive those five minutes of glory, stopping a clock that has run for far too long.
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