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'So surreal:' Former Tigers farmhand Watkins makes Comerica Park debut with Orioles

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit – Back in 2019, when he was pitching on the same Erie Seawolves staff as Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning, never could he have imagined that the first time he pitched at Comerica Park it would be against the Tigers, with so many of his Double-A mates in the opposite dugout.

Welcome to Spenser Watkins’ living dream.

“Just an incredible ride,” said Watkins, who will be the Orioles starting pitcher in the series finale Sunday. “It’s so surreal. It feels real but I catch myself wide-eyed.”

Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Spenser Watkins throws a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins Tuesday in Baltimore.

The Tigers drafted Watkins in the 30th round in 2014. He was the 910th pick that year. And after grinding through six years in the Tigers system, he found himself in the same Double-A rotation as Mize (first overall pick), Manning (first round pick), Alex Faedo (first round pick) and Skubal (ninth round, bonus baby).

“It’s funny because over here (with the Orioles) a lot of guys we played against on the (Double-A) Bowie,” Watkins said, laughing. “They’ll be talking about Mize and Manning and I’ll be like, ‘I was there, too. I pitched against you guys, too.’”

The Tigers released him before the 2020 season and he went home to the Phoenix area and was half-heartedly contemplating a career change.

“We were talking to teams but we weren’t sure what was going to be available, whether there would be a minor league season and all of that,” he said. “I lined up some coaching gigs, you know, to provide for my family. That was my option.

“But I was still banking on playing. I wasn’t throwing in the towel by any means. I was staying ready and waiting on a team to call.”

He made the most of the quarantine time, though. He hooked up with Arizona pitching trainer Jon Huizinga, Coach Zinger as he’s known.

“He had a friend with property and we set up a backyard pitching lab,” Watkins said. “We set up a portable mound. We had catchers, live batting practice. Edwin Jackson was there, a bunch of pro guys in Arizona were in that backyard throwing.”

It was more of a ranch. A horse ranch.

“I’d be throwing a bullpen and Julio Urias (Dodgers pitcher) would be standing there and a horse would be standing on the other side,” he said. “Pretty wild experience. But I was able to get like 55 to 60 innings of simulated games. “

So when the Orioles called in December and offered a minor-league deal, he hit the ground running, and with a relatively new pitch in his tool box – a cutter.

“It’s a funky, different kind of cutter,” Watkins said. “It profiles as a cutter but it acts different when I throw it on different planes. It can plane out to a slider down if I throw it down and if I through it up on the top plane, it plays like a cutter.”

Whiffle-ball nasty. He was called up from Triple-A on July 1 and has made four starts for the Orioles, allowing seven runs in 19.1 innings. Opponents are hitting .148 against his cutter.

“The cutter has been a big piece, but also understanding who I am as a pitcher,” he said. “I credit a ton of this to (the Tigers) for building me over the years. And when I got here, our pitching coaches (Chris Holt and Darren Holmes), they had a couple little things that really resonated with me.

"Just talking about who I am as a pitcher and maximizing my arsenal against hitters whereas before maybe I didn’t really understand exactly who I was.”

He has caught up with most of his former mates already this weekend, including his Erie pitching coach Juan Nieves and his former strength coaches Matt Rosenhamer and Steve Chase.

“It is kind of like an Erie reunion,” Watkins said. “It’s been incredible. Seeing Casey and Tarik and those guys, saying hi to them – it’s an unreal experience seeing these guys up here in the big leagues after we all played together.

“And stepping on that mound for the first time is going to be an incredible feeling. But knowing myself as a competitor, once I get out there, it doesn’t matter the name on the jersey, I’m attacking the hitter. It’s the lead-up to it that’s the emotional piece for me.”

He will be starting against one of his best friends -- Tigers Tyler Alexander. 

"To see him succeed in the big leagues is awesome," Alexander, who said he may have a little something up his sleeve for Watkins Sunday. 

"I told him I was going to write dirty messages on the mound," Alexander said, laughing. 

Twitter: @cmccosky