Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy adjusting to life in a reserve role

An annual ritual during a late-season trip to New York is the flurry of equipment representatives that flock into the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium taking orders for the upcoming season.

Before the Orioles’ series opener against the New York Yankees on Thursday night, Tim Beckham – anointed the team’s shortstop of the present and presumptively the future – and J.J. Hardy, a cornerstone of the club’s resurgence over the past six years, sat at adjacent lockers making their fielding glove orders from a Rawlings rep.

One week after returning from a lengthy disabled list stint on Sept. 8, he went into Friday having yet to see the field. Manager Buck Showalter said that he’s aiming to get Hardy playing time either Saturday or Sunday in New York, but made it clear Beckham will receive nearly all of the playing time down the stretch.

So Hardy — a three-time Gold Glove winner with the Orioles who also was an All-Star and Silver Slugger winner in 2013 — sits, staying ready if he’s called upon as the team’s playoff hopes get slimmer by the day.

Hardy, 35, understands the situation that has led to this, and he made that quite clear as he sat by his locker before Thursday’s series opener in New York. When Beckham arrived in a July 31 trade deadline deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, it was to upgrade the shortstop position in Hardy’s absence. But when the 27-year-old Beckham, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, tore the cover off the ball with a 1.062 OPS in August, he not only filled the shortstop need, but also became the top-of-the-order spark the Orioles didn’t have, helping to lead the team to its best offensive month of the season.

“It’s different,” said Hardy, who’s been a starter his entire major league career. “I’ve never done anything like [being on the bench], and I totally understand it. I mean it is what it is and like I said before this, we really didn’t know what was going to happen. I’m going to continue staying in shape, continuing doing everything that I can and if something changes, I’ll be ready to go.”

In the Orioles’ 13-5 loss to the Yankees on Thursday, Hardy remained on the bench as Showalter inserted his reserves, giving some of the organization’s top young players valuable innings at Yankee Stadium. Beckham was the only starting position player to remain at his position.

That’s not necessarily surprising, because Beckham is still new to the club, so he’s still getting acclimated, and being under team control for the next three seasons, there’s value to having him anchor the infield with the team’s up-and-comers in the game.

But that leaves the question about how Hardy’s Orioles career will end. Will he receive a start at Camden Yards in the team’s final homestand next week as a chance for fans to say farewell. He’s undoubtedly a fan favorite, even as his power numbers have diminished and he’s been beset by injuries that have taken him off the field for sizable chunks of each of the past three seasons.

Hardy doesn’t want to get nostalgic. He’d prefer to save that for when his career is over, and he believes he has more baseball ahead of him. But he knows his place in team history, and the role he’s played in helping bring the Orioles back to respectability while also mentoring stars like Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop.

“It’s something that I’m aware of,” Hardy said. “Where the organization was before — and I’m obviously not saying it was just me; there were a lot of guys who came in and Buck — but we’ve had, as a team, pretty good seasons. And I’m not saying it was all me, but I think it was some of me, and I think it was a great ride. It’s been fun; we’ve had a great team. The last five years, we’ve won more games than any American League team. I’ve signed two extensions here.”

Hardy has handled the transfer of the starting shortstop position with grace. He will continue to help Beckham get accustomed, as he has from the first day Beckham arrived.

“The Orioles invested in me for seven years and if I can help out the organization in any way, then that’s what I’m going to do, because I respect the hell out of everything they’ve done for me,” Hardy said.

Said Showalter: “He’s talking baseball, defense, situations all the time. If you watch Jon or Manny or Tim, Ryan [Flaherty], they’re always talking. We’ve had some really interesting infield depths the last two or three games. There have been a lot of conversations. J.J. and I have been talking about it. … Just to get that affirmation of us talking to [Beckham], ‘Here’s why we do it that way,’ it helps a lot. J.J. is always interested in making someone’s path easier than harder.”

Hardy went on the DL with a broken bone in his right wrist after being hit by a pitch on June 18. He didn’t start his minor league rehabilitation assignment schedule until two months later. And once he started his rehab assignment, he needed a cortisone shot in his elbow as his arm strength lagged. The delay getting back to baseball was frustrating because he wanted to have the opportunity to reverse a slow start at the plate, an opportunity that never came.

“I played the games in Norfolk and I had other issues going on,” Hardy said. “I came back and I had to take care of those issues. I hadn’t seen live [batting practice] for a week or whatever it was. It was a weird way to come back. I totally understand. I understand what’s going on around here, and I’m just doing as much as I can to get ready. Whatever happens, no one’s really sat me down and talked. I’m just trying to figure it out as we go.”

Hardy played in just 64 games before the injury and his .556 OPS this season is the lowest of his career. But even in his best seasons, he’s been a slow starter. His career OPS in the first half of the season (.697) is 39 points lower than after the All-Star break (.736).

Hardy definitively said he feels he can still man the starting shortstop position in the major leagues. He realizes it won’t be in Baltimore, but he’s convinced he can do it somewhere else if given the opportunity.

“I know I can play,” Hardy said. “I look back at seasons that I’ve had and I’ve never got off to a good start. One year, I think I got off to a good start, and I think that was 2007, and every other year I’ve come out of the gate super slow and then ended up coming back and having pretty good years. Same thing as this year. I got off to a slow start and then instead of me having time to dig myself out of the hole, I got hurt and it basically ended my season. It’s been a tough year for that just because I wasn’t able to bounce back, but to question whether I can still play or not, that’s not a question in my mind.”

eencina@baltsun.com

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