Pirates prospect Quinn Priester battles nerves, big league hitters in spring debut

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Quinn Priester had many things running through his mind during his first Grapefruit League game Monday, from wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform to hearing the starting lineups announced to seeing fans in the stands at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota.

"There's an added adrenaline and excitement with being in a place like this," Priester said, "and being in a place like this for the first time in my career."

The 20-year-old right-hander, the Pirates' 2019 first-round draft pick and ranked their top pitching prospect and No. 58 overall by Baseball America, said he was nervous for his spring training debut against the Baltimore Orioles. That reflected in the results: He faced four batters in two-thirds of an inning, allowing one run on one hit, one walk, a stolen base and a balk before being replaced by Chris Stratton.

The score was tied 2-2 when Priester relieved starter Tyler Anderson in the fifth inning. Priester started by walking leadoff batter Cedric Mullins, who stole second base and reached third on the balk. Priester then got Trey Mancini to pop up to second, but Mullins scored on an RBI double to right field by Anthony Satander to give the Orioles a 3-2 lead. Finally, Priester got Pedro Severino to ground out to third.

"I was just trying to attack the zone, and I obviously didn't do a great job of that — and it showed," Priester said. "It put me behind in a lot of counts and put me in some sticky situations, so just getting ahead and attacking hitters and trusting myself is a big focus going forward."

Priester appeared disgusted with his performance, which showed his competitive side. He has designs on not only pitching in the majors but being a top-of-the-rotation starter someday. The outing was a sign of how much he has to learn, a reminder of how far he has to go to reach that goal.

"I'm sure he's probably going to be harder on himself than anybody will," Anderson said, "but it's his first spring training. It's his first time in a game, and it's covid and stuff. He doesn't have any minor league innings, doesn't have anything. He probably didn't throw in a game last year, maybe fall league or something like that. It's just a weird situation, so I wouldn't put too much weight obviously on that first one."

What Priester learned is he has to minimize walks, not to mention do a better job of holding runners.

On a positive note, when he got behind in the count, especially fastball counts, Priester was able to rely on his heater to get outs. That increased his trust in the pitch. Once he calmed down, he was able to land his off-speed pitches.

While Priester was upset with his performance, the Pirates weren't expecting much more than to get him exposure. Priester has yet to pitch a full season in the minor leagues and had been warned by Pirates manager Derek Shelton he wasn't making the 26-man Opening Day roster out of spring training.

Not only was this Priester's first time facing major league hitters in a game, it also was his first time pitching in a relief role. Anderson said that likely threw off Priester's gameday routine a bit, though Priester refused to blame his performance on any adjustments.

"It was definitely different, but it's not an excuse for what I did out there," Priester said. "So, obviously, you've got to be able to change and adapt and perform no matter what the circumstances."

With the minor league season not starting until May, the Pirates decided to wait until midway through spring training to have Priester pitch in a game. Given he still is practicing at Pirate City, it was as much about having him around major league players and getting a taste of the gameday atmosphere as anything.

"I think that is important," Shelton said. "He's a 20-year-old kid that hasn't pitched very much. To get him acclimated, to get him in a big league game, I'm sure there's going to be some nerves for him. It's just to get him around the group, to get him some exposure and let him feel what it's like to wear a Pirates uniform on a big-league field. That's kind of cool."

After he was pulled, Priester remained in the dugout to watch the game instead of hitting the showers. He studied the pitchers' mentality, from how they sequence and execute their pitches to where they set their sights, searching for ways to be more consistent and make faster adjustments in the game. It was evidence the 6-foot-2, 210-pounder brings a cerebral approach to the mound.

Overall, Priester found his spring training debut to be a valuable experience — and maybe more exciting than he expected.

"I was definitely nervous. There's no doubt about it," Priester said. "But, no, it was good nerves. I was super excited to get out there today. Having that first one under my belt, I think I'm going to look back on it in a few years and laugh about it. But (I) definitely need to take advantage of mistakes that I've made in terms of getting better from them."

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at kgorman@triblive.com or via Twitter .