ST. PETERSBURG — Results have long escaped Keegan Akin. An exact role, too. So at 27 years old and part of a “bucket” of Orioles pitchers facing career inflection points, Akin understands the stakes at hand. In the longer term, the organization’s wave of talent will arrive, squeezing middling results out of the picture. In the short term, the 28-man roster will be trimmed by two come the first week of May.
Opportunities have been plentiful. Performance is now essential.
So Akin, in his season debut amid the Orioles’ 5-3 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field on Saturday, not only did his part to carry the load for a thinned pitching staff, but he displayed “the best stuff I’ve seen him have since he’s been here,” manager Brandon Hyde declared.
Taking the reins in the sixth inning after Jordan Lyles’ uneven Orioles debut, Akin turned in three breezy innings: one hit, three strikeouts and just four balls of his 31 pitches in the game. That is, by a comfortable margin, the highest single-outing strike percentage (87.1) of his career.
“That’s what we’ve been preaching for him, for the rest of the guys — is trust your stuff being the strike zone,” Hyde said. “Hopefully, it’s a step in the right direction for Keegan.”
Akin agreed with his manager’s assessment.
“Absolutely, definitely,” he responded when asked if Saturday was the best he has ever felt as a Major Leaguer. “I was trying to come out of spring healthy, that was kind of my main focus. So to do that, and then when game time showed up, my mindset was just go out there and just throw strikes, pound the zone and keep the team in the game.”
It was a crucial performance for Akin, who seemed to figure into the Orioles’ plans in some form during Spring Training, though that was not a given — especially when his Grapefruit League outings went awry. His second-round pedigree had run dry in recent years, with 144 runs across 235 innings — a 5.45 ERA — since he debuted at Triple-A Norfolk in 2019. In Major League action alone, that number is more inflated. In 2021, it stood at 6.63.
That’s what made Saturday as crucial as it was.
“It’s huge to get off to a start like that, especially for me coming off last season,” Akin said. “It’s kind of a confidence booster to start the season. Hopefully, I can take it and run from there.”
The Orioles hope they can rejuvenate the productive, early-career Akin. While his role remains fluid, coming out of the bullpen regularly would be something he welcomes. It could come to fruition. With Tyler Wells on a short leash, Baltimore is committing to a tandem role for the No. 3 spot in its rotation. Akin will all but assuredly be out of commission for it during its first iteration Sunday, but he remains a real possibility to follow Wells going forward — a left-handed look out of the bullpen to keep opponents off balance.
“Yeah, I liked it actually, to be honest with you,” Akin said. “I liked it a lot. Could get used to it.”
Akin had a friendly face to turn to on Saturday, his locker adjacent to Lyles’ in the visiting clubhouse. And though Akin and his 33 career appearances outperformed Lyles and his 290, there was plenty to glean.
Lyles, bitten by hard contact in a rocky second inning, was determined to make it through at least five frames. There was discussion of turning to the bullpen after four, with the 31-year-old at 73 pitches, but he wanted to save the bullpen another inning. And with a 10-pitch fifth, he did just that.
“He went out there and grinded through five for us and did what he’s done his whole career, just go out there and eat innings,” Akin said. “He’s going to get his innings in regardless of the situation.”
And if the Orioles have it their way, both arms could be tested eaters of innings come the start of summer.
“Later on in the season, I’m going to dig out a couple more innings here and there. That’s kind of what I like to do,” Lyles said. “Especially with a young staff around me — bullpen-wise, starting rotation-wise — I want to keep the bullpen as fresh as possible. I look forward to doing that later in the year.”