BALTIMORE — Branden Kline’s “Welcome to the Big Leagues” moments have arrived at various times and in various forms.
First, there was his major-league debut April 20 at Camden Yards when, after a 1-2-3 first inning in relief for the Baltimore Orioles, he surrendered a couple of home runs, including one that renowned slugger Nelson Cruz “hit a country mile”, according to Kline.
“That was like, ‘All right, you are here,’” the 2009 graduate of Thomas Johnson High School said.
Then, there was the May 11 relief appearance against the visiting Los Angeles Angels when Kline faced Mike Trout with the bases loaded and struck him out.
“A backup slider of all pitches,” Kline said of a pitch that probably clocked in the high 80s. “It was a slider that didn’t do anything. Instead of going down, it just kept going up. He kind of swung straight through it. It’s probably one that I wouldn’t get away with again.”
But nothing told Kline that he had finally made it more than when he stepped in his Chicago hotel room for a mid-week series against the White Sox at the end of April.
“That’s the first time in my life where I walked into a hotel room and I was uncomfortable staying there,” Kline said. “There were three iPads around the room. One controlled the TV. One controlled the shades. And one controlled the temperature. It was too nice.”
Of course, Kline, 27, hasn’t had the chance to enjoy these kinds of perks all season. He’s been shuttling back and forth between the Orioles and their Triple-A minor-league affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia, roughly 240 miles or a four-hour car ride away.
Right now, Kline (1-4, 6.37 ERA) is in the midst of his fifth separate stint with the Orioles over the past four months after being recalled from Triple-A on Aug. 3.
The most difficult transition he faced was getting off a minor-league bus in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in the middle of the night June 21, catching a cross-country flight to Seattle, arriving at the ballpark several hours later and then pitching two innings of relief against the Mariners on very little sleep.
Not surprisingly, he allowed four earned runs on four hits, including a homer, in the Orioles’ 10-9 loss to Seattle.
“I have been where he is, going up and down. It’s hard,” said veteran Orioles reliever Richard Bleier, a frequent bullpen resource and sounding board for Kline. “I have seen guys fly in at 6 o’clock, and they are pitching an hour and a half later. The pressure is there because they evaluate you on every single pitch that you throw, and the sample size usually isn’t very big.”
Kline handles his tenuous roster status and impromptu travel regimen with his typical levelheadedness.
“As a competitor, you never want to get sent down or told you are not good enough,” Kline said. “You just have to understand the reason why you are getting sent down, and that’s to attack whatever it is I need to work on.”
Right now, Kline readily admits that is locating pitches, especially when he falls behind in counts. He feels he is leaving too many pitches over the heart of the plate and paying the price. He’s allowed nine home runs in 23 appearances for the Orioles, spanning 29 2/3 innings.
Kline has a fastball that hums just under 100 miles per hour. His slider is a credible secondary pitch, and he’s working on making the change-up a bigger part of his repertoire.
Once he can put his pitches where he wants more consistently, he feels the Orioles will have a harder time sending him down to the minor leagues.
“I would like to have better numbers,” Kline said. “At the same time, it shows the inexperience that I have.”
In the clubhouse Friday afternoon, a few hours before the Orioles opened a three-game series with the Houston Astros, Kline was seated at his locker with a laptop, analyzing frame-by-frame video of the potential opposing hitters he could face this weekend.
This is another perk he doesn’t get to enjoy in Norfolk or other minor-league ballparks because the video technology is not as sophisticated as it is in the majors.
“Really, I just want to see where hitters are in the box, where they set up,” Kline said. “From there, you can gauge a plan of attack.”
Kline does this before every series, spending roughly 5 to 10 minutes on every player in the opposing lineup. Occasionally, he’ll return to the video during the series in search of adjustments or tweaks to his approach. But he tries to minimize these instances in fear of over-analyzing and over-thinking.
“I know I have the stuff it takes to be in this league,” he said. “It’s really just the consistency. There are going to be nights that I don’t have my best stuff. But those are the nights that elite pitchers are able to limit the damage. That’s what I have been trying to focus on.”