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Orioles hold first ‘odd, just random, weirdest’ practice of summer camp at Camden Yards

Orioles hold first ‘odd, just random, weirdest’ practice of summer camp at Camden Yards

Wade LeBlanc signed a one-year deal with the Orioles in early February that, if he made the major league roster out of Spring Training, was worth $800,000. He was set to join a crowded rotation with a shot to pitch in the major leagues.

But over the last few months, LeBlanc found another way to pitch -- and other batters to pitch to. 

Instead of pitching to major league hitters in the spring and early summer, he pitched to the seven year olds on his son’s coach-pitch travel team due to the coronavirus pandemic and the delayed major league season.

Now, he’s able to give up that job as the Orioles held their first “summer camp” practice of July at Camden Yards, three weeks from the start date of the 2020 season. But the return to the field wasn’t a normal practice for anyone involved.

“It’s pretty weird to say the least,” LeBlanc said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “Today we went out, stretched, played catch, I threw a bullpen today. Get ready for a sim game in a couple days. Washed my hands before and after I was in the bullpen, which was kind of strange. We did some conditioning, took care of some arm exercises and all that kind of stuff.”

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The Orioles, like every team across Major League Baseball, have taken exhaustive measures to ensure the safety of the players in the organization. 

Some of those measures include hand-washing stations scattered across the field, coaches keeping their distance while still giving instruction, and spaced out clubhouses.

For first baseman Chris Davis, one of the biggest adjustments is going to be the act of not sharing the baseball around the infield like he normally does.

“I think probably the weirdest thing for me is going to be throwing the balls out in between innings or even in between just warming guys up and stuff like that,” Davis said. “I think there’s going to be like a recycling ball station on the field where you toss it and they’ll throw it in a bucket. That to me is going to be the hardest or the biggest adjustment, just the attention to detail of not sharing a ball too much.”

Manager Brandon Hyde said everyone, with the exception of Dominican players who had just arrived, reported as scheduled. He declined, however, to say if anyone in the organization tested positive for COVID-19.

“When you’re out on the field, it feels normal,” Hyde said. “It’s definitely different in the clubhouse. It’s different in the coaches’ room. There’s just a lot more protocols that we’ve all bought into to really make this a safe, healthy season, and do everything we can to keep us safe as well as the players and the coaches.” 

As of now, no players or coaches are expected to remove themselves from the Orioles’ roster for the upcoming season. 

Both LeBlanc and Davis said that was never particularly under consideration for either of them. 

“With so many unknowns there’s always going to be some reservations here and there, but outside of that you understand you have a job to do and for the last 13, 14 years this is kind of all I’ve known,” LeBlanc said. “It’s wanting to get back to normal for the most part. Normal as much as possible. It’s something that, as baseball players, we want to get out there and play baseball, so that’s what we’re hoping to do.”

Despite the unprecedented circumstances, the Orioles still have to be focused on the upcoming season. 

For players like Davis, it’s a chance to continue their hot streaks from back in Sarasota, Fla., during Spring Training, games and workouts that seem an eternity ago. 

For younger players on the roster, it’s a chance to earn an opportunity in the majors — despite the shortened season.

“We’re still trying to find out about a lot of guys on our roster,” Hyde said. “I was really encouraged by the momentum we had in camp. I thought we played well, I thought our work days were fantastic. We’ve talked about capturing that momentum again.”

And as Hyde pointed out, the Orioles are in contention from the day they step on the field for the regular season.

“We’re going to be in first place in late July,” Hyde quipped. “That’s really exciting for all of us.”

Through all the excitement, however, exists a new normal that no one on the field has experienced in their baseball careers. 

That includes Davis, a player who in his career has led the league in home runs, won a game as a pitcher, went on an 0-for-54 hitless streak and played a game without fans in the stands. 

Today topped them all.

“This is definitely the most odd, just random, weirdest thing that I’ve ever encountered on the baseball field,” Davis said. “I think it’s going to start to feel more normal the longer we are under all these protocols and guidelines, and that’s kind of my hope, that we develop some sort of routine where this becomes our normal for the time being.”

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Dwight Smith Jr. pokes fun at Orioles' low expectations at beginning of 2020 season

Dwight Smith Jr. pokes fun at Orioles' low expectations at beginning of 2020 season

Few of us thought the Orioles would be over .500 a quarter of the way into the 2020 season, even if it is a 60-game campaign. Some even thought they wouldn't win more than two games in that same span. 

Dwight Smith Jr. is here to let all of us know how we were wrong. 

On his Instagram story, Smith posted a screenshot of an ESPN story that didn't hold back in projecting Baltimore's win total for 2020.

"'In danger of starting the season 1-12,'" Smith wrote. "This is why you play the games kids and don't listen to the outside noise."

The 8-7 Orioles have been one of the biggest surprises during Major League Baseball's condensed 2020 campaign. They started out 2-3 against the Yankees and Red Sox to begin the year and then pulled off an impressive sweep of the Rays to follow.

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They then fell to 5-7 after a disappointing series against the Marlins but quickly rebounded with a sweep of the Nationals and a thrilling victory over the Phillies Tuesday night. They're well on their way to more than 20 wins, that's for sure. 

Pundits are still skeptical of the Orioles' staying power, including ESPN's Karl Ravech. But in a shortened season, anything can happen. If 2019 only lasted 50 games, the World Series champion Nationals wouldn't have even made the playoffs. 

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The Orioles, at their quarter-mark of the season, are playing better than anyone expected

The Orioles, at their quarter-mark of the season, are playing better than anyone expected

On the first night of the Orioles’ season in Boston a few weeks ago, the Orioles 2020 campaign was off to a horrendous, and at the time, predictable start.

They were blown out by the Red Sox, and though it was just Opening Day, the longest possible 60-game season looked like it could be in order for baseball’s worst team in 2018, and second-worst in 2019.

But the Orioles rebounded to win the next two games, then after being swept by the Yankees, swept the Rays in a three-game set. They’ve been up-and-down all year, but through a quarter of the season, the Orioles are 8-7 and where no one thought they’d be: In a playoff spot.

“When the bats haven’t been there, our pitching staff has stepped up,” Austin Hays said after a wild comeback win Tuesday in Philadelphia. “We continue to pick each other up no matter what. That’s what makes the game fun - when you know that you can trust the teammate that’s next to you. This season has been crazy from the 2-1 games to the 11-10 games. Last year and the year before, we had a lot of one-run games where we couldn’t find a way to pull through and get the win. This year has been a very different story.”

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The 2020 season has presented a lot of quirky, mostly overused, sample-size cliches no one thought possible just a few months ago.

For example: The Orioles, on Aug. 12, are over .500. And that’s good enough in 2020 for a playoff spot at the quarter-pole of a shortened season.

As of now, the Orioles are in third place in the AL East behind the Yankees and Rays. But with each division winner and then five wild card teams, the Orioles would be the eighth and final team in the American League playoffs. And there’s still positive signs on the horizon. 

The Orioles will finish the week with two more games against the Phillies, then three games against the Nationals over the weekend, which includes a continuation of Sunday’s game, a game they’re leading in the sixth inning.

Essentially, if the Orioles finish their victory off from Sunday, even a 2-3 record the rest of the week means they’ll start next Monday at 11-10 — more than a third of the way through the season.

The Orioles’ record, were this to be a full season, is extrapolated out to roughly 21-19. If that were the case, there certainly would be cause for cautious optimism no matter how long it lasts. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Orioles have the second-best batting average in the league (.260), the sixth-best on-base percentage (.331) and the second-best slugging percentage (.457) in all of baseball. Their team ERA is 4.43, which is 21st in the league, but the offense has been good enough to lift the pitching staff. 

Will those numbers regress, eventually hanging the pitching staff out to dry without run support? Probably — Jose Iglesias is still batting .395 and Hanser Alberto is batting .348, both of which figure to come down in upcoming days and weeks. In a 60-game season, though, sample sizes rule the league.

But at least for now, the Orioles have been a fun surprise throughout all of baseball. And in a shortened season, that’s all it takes to make a run.

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