CLEVELAND — Gunnar Henderson’s golden hair bounced as the Orioles infielder floated around the bases in the fourth inning Wednesday night. His swing, so powerful his helmet slid off his head on his first step out of the batter’s box, left his headgear laying near the first base line at Progressive Field, forgotten.
The ball was also long gone, but it won’t ever be forgotten.
Henderson, the top prospect in baseball, crushed his first major league hit for a home run 429 feet to right-center field in his second major league at-bat, meeting a slider with the vicious swing of a player who dominated minor league pitchers on a nightly basis. Cleveland Guardians right-hander Triston McKenzie was the latest to get beaten by the 21-year-old infielder, who hasn’t faced a pitcher younger than him in his past two seasons as a professional.
In the stands, jumping for joy, were Henderson’s parents, brothers, grandparents and girlfriend. In the dugout, there was just as much excitement. When Henderson crossed home plate and trotted toward the dugout, catcher Adley Rutschman — another top-ranked prospect who received a promotion this season — met him with the Orioles’ home run chain. Then Rutschman gave Henderson a hug, savoring an unforgettable moment.
“He just looked at me and kind of congratulated me,” Henderson said. “It was kind of a surreal moment, because I’ve been able to come up through the minor leagues with him and watch his career, and being able to do that up here with him is pretty awesome.”
The Orioles’ lineup needed a spark after averaging fewer than three runs per game over the last week. Henderson provided it in a 4-0 win, which included a two-run homer from Ramón Urías in the eighth inning.
Before the game began, Henderson tried on a few helmets. The one he settled on was the best fit, but it still flew off his head on his homer — and his ninth-inning single — as part of his 2-for-4 night.
“I guess I have too much hair going on,” Henderson said.
The power Henderson exhibited with that swing is well documented in the minors, where the Selma, Alabama, native posted gaudy numbers. Between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, he held a .297 batting average and .947 OPS with 19 home runs, 79 walks and 116 strikeouts.
Before the game, which featured Henderson batting sixth and playing third base, manager Brandon Hyde said he wanted to “temper expectations” for the top prospect, as he does any young player. He noted how difficult the adjustment to the majors can be for players, especially when facing McKenzie, who owns a 3.17 ERA, and right-hander Shane Bieber, a two-time All-Star and 2020 Cy Young Award winner, in his first two games.
But for an offense that has scuffled of late — particularly the infielders — Henderson’s addition was a near-necessity, a way to rekindle life in a Baltimore (68-61) club that finds itself in a playoff push, entering Wednesday three games back of the final American League wild-card spot.
“I mean, that ball was hit,” Hyde said. “It was loud. It was a no-doubter off the bat, so our dugout exploded. I don’t think the helmet made it out of the batter’s box.”
It’s just one at-bat. It’s just one homer.
But as Henderson made his way around the bases, batting helmet left behind, all eyes followed the youngest player on the field.
Once the game ended, Henderson received a laundry cart shower from his teammates, who swiftly presented him with the orange championship belt reserved for the player of the game. As per tradition, his teammates asked him to give a speech.
“I just told them, ‘Thank you for letting me come out and do this,’” Henderson said. “Not very good at being on the spot on [a] speech.”
But being on the spot on the diamond is another story.
A hungry, hungry Lyles
As the ball was thrown thrown around the diamond after one of two strikeouts for right-hander Jordan Lyles, Henderson and the veteran pitcher found themselves next to each. When shortstop Jorge Mateo threw the ball back, Henderson reached in front of Lyles’ glove and intercepted the throw.
Lyles gave Henderson, this kid a decade younger than him, a look. Then Henderson handed him the ball, and they patted each other on the back before they went back to work.
It was Henderson’s night, with his debut and his homer. But Lyles did his part — and then some — with what could be his best start this season. The veteran pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings, and while he forced just seven whiffs on 96 pitches, he allowed just two batted balls with exit velocities over 100 mph.
“This is an aggressive team,” Lyles said. “They get their bat off the shoulder from the get-go, so if you’re around the corners, you’re going to have less hard contact.”
He worked around trouble in the fourth, when he stranded the bases loaded by inducing a force out to Henderson at third. Lyles bemoaned the three walks he allowed among his four hits, but he held up his end of the bargain, allowing Henderson’s night to end with a win.
“It’s awesome, because I was there one time,” Lyles said. “I know how much it means for each and everyone who puts on a major league uniform for the first time.”
Henderson isn’t alone
Inside left-hander DL Hall’s locker sat the teal baseball glove he’s worn throughout his time in the minor leagues. The last time Hall was in the majors — making a one-start cameo in mid-August against the Tampa Bay Rays — Hall had left that glove behind, opting instead for his first professional glove, a light brown edition he thought would give him good luck.
But that light brown glove doesn’t grab the eye like Hall’s teal model. So when Hall next takes the mound as a member of the Orioles, it’ll be with the teal version in all its glory.
“That’s me,” Hall said. “I like the loud colors and things like that. That’s always been me, so just want to get back to myself.”
He won’t fully get back to himself until next season, when he’ll likely get the chance to transition back into a starting role. Hall will pitch out of the bullpen for Baltimore in September once rosters expand, a transition that included 6 2/3 relief innings for the Tides. The major difference is how much time he has to warm up compared to when he’s starting.
Beyond that, though, Hall is prepared to unleash his velocity in a different role.
“You don’t have to worry about stretching out your pitches and things like that among five to seven innings,” Hall said. “You can kind of go out there and get after it for an inning or two.”
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Hyde said Hall and first baseman Jesús Aguilar — the latter of whom was signed Wednesday to a minor league deal and joined the club’s taxi squad — are expected to be the two September call-ups.
Aguilar, who was recently released by the Miami Marlins, adds a powerful bat, having hit 15 homers this season and 23 in 2021. Hyde said Aguilar, an All-Star with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018, will be useful in pinch-hitting situations, especially.
“Big power threat,” Hyde said. “Guy that’s gonna drive in runs. He did a nice job at first base those years in Milwaukee. I think he’s just an added, talented major league player on our roster.”
Around the horn
- Right-hander Travis Lakins Sr. cleared outright waivers and was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk. Lakins has dealt with right elbow inflammation since May.
- The Orioles announced their spring training schedule for 2023 on Wednesday, with games beginning Feb. 25 at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida. Baltimore will play 16 home games and 15 road games. The player report dates will be announced at a later time.
Thursday, 6:10 p.m.
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