Gunnar Henderson knows how dangerous Adley Rutschman can be with the game on the line.
“You can just tell by his face: He gets locked in,” Henderson said. “You want to keep it away from him or get him on his heels. It’s tough to do, but you’ve got to be more strategic.”
Henderson wasn’t talking about the approach to attacking a key at-bat against his predecessor as baseball’s top prospect. He was referring to the only way to beat Rutschman in Spikeball.
The net-and-ball game is one of the several ways in which the Orioles’ many young stars go head-to-head, forming the competitive bonds they hope will usher in Baltimore’s return to prominence. That group — helmed by Rutschman and Henderson, their first two draft picks in 2019, and pitchers DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez, their top selections in 2017 and 2018 — will arrive in force in 2023 after several of them made their first major league contributions in last season′s unexpected breakout.
That quartet was regarded as the Orioles’ four best prospects entering last year, and all but Rodriguez reached Baltimore, a lat muscle strain delaying the debut of one of the minors’ top pitchers. But he’s expected to make the Orioles’ opening day rotation as the team pursues its first playoff berth in seven years.
Three years after they were the four youngest participants in the Orioles’ alternate training site amid the coronavirus pandemic, they are poised to guide the franchise to long-awaited success.
“It’s cool to see where we’ve come from, where we’re at now and just the opportunities that we have ahead,” Rutschman said. “I’m really excited to see what is in store.”
The pandemic cost Rutschman, the catcher selected first overall in the 2019 draft, and Henderson, an infielder taken atop the second round, what would have been their first full season as professionals. Instead, they faced Rodriguez and Hall regularly at the Bowie alternate training site, bonding with them away from the field.
“We had two and a half months of solitude together,” Rutschman said.
With health and safety restrictions in place, they often returned home and became engrossed in video games, the first non-baseball activity that cultivated their friendly rivalries. “Call of Duty,” “Apex Legends” and “Rocket League” filled their evenings, becoming early sources of the trash talk that litters their friendship.
Even as Henderson, a year removed from being drafted out of a small Alabama high school, struggled early in the camp, he more than held his own in the gaming sessions, with Rodriguez deeming him the best player in the group. Rodriguez, 23, also acknowledged he’s the worst in that category, but he countered he holds the title in “everything but video games.”
That claim is heavily disputed.
Henderson, 21, swears he’s the top table tennis player. Golf generates debates over the No. 1 talent. Rutschman, 25, points to bowling as his one weakness, but utility player Terrin Vavra, another young alternate site participant, said Rutschman’s standards of poor performance are different than a normal person’s.
“He says that he’s not good, but then I’ve also seen where he’s bowled a couple strikes in a row,” Vavra said. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, he could figure this out if he really tried.’”
Then, there’s Spikeball, a game that brands itself as “if volleyball and foursquare had a baby.” This, Rutschman said, is a space where others can’t top him.
“At that point, it’s not really competitive,” Rutschman said. “It’s a waxing.”
‘Into the skin’
It’s possible the most trash talk stems from who’s the best at, well, trash talk. Rodriguez and Hall, long regarded as the Orioles’ top two pitching prospects, have pushed each other throughout their careers, often in the form of snark.
“This one here wants to put tape over my mouth,” Rodriguez said, nodding his head toward Hall’s locker, “but I’m gonna keep running it.”
Hall, 24, said Rodriguez is welcome to, figuring he won’t say anything particularly witty anyway.
“If you can think of the first joke a 12-year-old would say, that’s what Grayson would say,” Hall said. “I’m seasoned. I can really find a way into the skin, especially with Grayson. And then he’s just going to return it with a 12-year-old’s joke.”
Fellow pitching prospect Drew Rom said the title of top chirper might come down to “who’s had their coffee.” Right-hander Kyle Bradish, a trade acquisition whose first extended taste of the organization came at the alternate site, said Rodriguez “needs to work on some of his comebacks,” adding that Hall’s Georgia accent is superior to Rodriguez’s Texas drawl.
Rutschman said he does what he can to instigate the two pitchers, knowing that once they get going, it’s free entertainment for everyone else. Rutschman couldn’t offer any particular lines either has offered; at this point, he’s heard Hall and Rodriguez go at it so much, their disputes have effectively become background noise.
“I feel like you almost get numb to it,” Rutschman said.
Hall earned some bragging rights last summer. He started the season rehabilitating an elbow injury, and with Rodriguez dominating at Triple-A, it seemed likely Rodriguez would reach the majors first despite being drafted a year later.
“He probably had a chance to beat me there,” Hall said, “and he let me know it.”
But Rodriguez’s lat strain came on the cusp of a likely debut that instead was pushed to 2023, allowing Hall to be the first to earn a call-up. He celebrated appropriately, sending Rodriguez pictures of every ballpark he went to and many of the meals he was eating. Crab cakes were frequently the subject, though Hall said he passed along anything he was having, knowing it would “be better than what he was eating down here.”
“He definitely did a good job of rubbing it in my face,” Rodriguez said.
But all of the shots and digs between them come from a good place, two pitchers with comparable talent levels consistently pushing each other to be even better.
“That’s just our competitiveness,” Rodriguez said. “We really try to one-up each other each and every day, try to go out and do better than the other. That kind of relationship, it’s somebody that you want to hang out with, it’s somebody that pushes you. If you’re having a bad day, he’ll come over and tell you to wake up, and I do the same thing.”
‘Little extra time’
Rutschman and Henderson share a similar dynamic. Drafted out of Oregon State, Rutschman was three academic years ahead of Henderson, and the pair roomed together in Sarasota for their first professional experiences, allowing Henderson to “see one of the best go about it.”
Both Vavra and outfielder Kyle Stowers, Baltimore’s third draft pick in 2019, compared their relationship to that of brothers.
“There’s this little extra time together I’ve noticed between them,” Stowers said. “They definitely love beating each other.”
They lived together again this spring, often leaving the ballpark to compete in a head-to-head series in “Rocket League,” with Henderson pairing with fellow Orioles prospect Colton Cowser and Rutschman pairing with a teammate from college, George Mendazona, to see which duo would be the first to win 50 matches. Their video game of choice occasionally shifts to “Super Smash Bros.,” with the best player changing by the day. A chipping mat allows them to practice their golf games, which are “pretty comparable” in Rutschman’s eyes, though Stowers gave Rutschman the edge. He said he wasn’t worried about Henderson hearing him say so.
“I told him yesterday, so he knows,” Stowers said with a laugh. “It’s close.”
Cowser, one of the Orioles’ eight top-10 prospects who ended last season in Triple-A or the majors, said Rutschman is more consistent with his trash talk — often pulling one-liners from the Netflix show “I Think You Should Leave” — while Henderson is “sneaky.” These contests naturally extend to baseball, too, with Rutschman and Henderson giving each other a hard time throughout batting practice competitions. Since the alternate site, both have talked a big game whenever they step in the box against Rodriguez or Hall. Rutschman took Rodriguez deep “over the scoreboard” in Bowie, Hall said, before getting in another shot at his fellow pitcher by noting that Rutschman managed to only double off the wall against him.
“Whether Adley’s talking about how fast his hands are, that we can’t get anything by him, or Gunnar telling us he’s going to take us deep,” Rodriguez said, “it’s a lot of fun.”
Henderson said he’s grateful he doesn’t have to face Rodriguez and Hall outside of spring training — “I feel sorry for the other [teams’] hitters” — but he appreciates the experience he gained against them at the alternate site. He was “one of the easier outs” as the camp began said, Hall said, facing high-level prospects such as he and Rodriguez and pitchers on the cusp of the majors. In time, Henderson adapted to the challenge, becoming “probably the toughest at-bat that I faced,” Hall said.
In the two seasons since, Henderson, who Rodriguez described as a “man child,” has had only one at-bat against a pitcher younger than him and still thrived. He enters this season as baseball’s near-unanimous top prospect and the favorite to be American League Rookie of the Year. Rodriguez and Hall are also among the well-regarded candidates.
Rutschman was the runner-up for last year’s honor, an early indication of his ability to back up the massive expectations bestowed upon him as a college player. Since he was drafted, he was the face of the Orioles’ rebuild, spearheading the wave of talent at last reaching Camden Yards.
“When you have the first overall pick of a new front office be as selfless, as team-oriented as he is, I think that sets the standard from the top down,” Stowers said. “For someone who has a right to have an ego, someone who has a right to be into themselves, he’s not at all.”
Unless it comes to Spikeball.
Soruce : https://www.mercurynews.com/2023/03/23/from-video-games-to-trash-talking-competitive-bonds-among-orioles-top-young-stars-fuel-return-to-contention/