WASHINGTON — More so than the speed Gunnar Henderson showed as he rounded the bases, and more so than the ball slipping out of Washington Nationals left fielder César Hernández’s grasp on his throw, perhaps the most surprising thing about the play that broke Wednesday night’s game open was that Henderson never lost his helmet.
In the Orioles rookie’s first marquee moment in the major leagues, that helmet gave way to his blond locks, either by the sheer force of his swing or the speed of his legs. But in the seventh inning at Nationals Park on Wednesday, Henderson chugged and the helmet remained — all the way from the batter’s box, around first, second and third, and into home plate about 15 seconds later.
“To watch him run, for a guy that physical, that size, it’s pretty fun,” manager Brandon Hyde said.
Baltimore needed a spark against Washington, having staggered through six innings against left-hander Patrick Corbin. Against the Nationals’ bullpen, however, the Orioles immediately broke through, with Henderson’s hard-hit triple down the third base line plating three runs to propel Baltimore to a 6-2 win to keep pace in the race toward the final American League wild-card spot.
With the victory, the Orioles are four games back of the Tampa Bay Rays heading into a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays, although the Rays own the tiebreaker over Baltimore.
“Hopefully we can carry the momentum from here,” starting pitcher Tyler Wells said. “We feel good. We are sitting there picking each other up in the dugout. Dugout’s been really loud, showing a lot of camaraderie and team support. I think that goes a long way, so hopefully we can continue that in Toronto and carry out a series win there.”
As the Orioles struggle to produce with runners in scoring position, Henderson has a been a bright spot. The 21-year-old is 4-for-9 with runners in scoring position this month; the rest of his teammates are 15-for-84.
It was Henderson’s groundout in the second inning that got Baltimore on the board early after it loaded the bases. The Orioles only managed one run after producing three straight singles against Corbin, who settled in and didn’t allow another hit until Austin Hays’ double to begin the sixth.
But in the seventh, with right-hander Mason Thompson on the mound, Hyde inserted outfielder Cedric Mullins as a pinch hitter. He promptly singled, moving pinch runner Terrin Vavra to second. That brought Henderson up, and his liner down the line off Thompson sent Henderson to the races.
Henderson ran from home plate to third base in 11.12 seconds, according to MLB.com, the third fastest home-to-third time in the majors this season. When the ball squirted out of Hernández’s hand as he attempted to throw it in, Henderson could jaunt home to complete his Little League homer — his first since high school, he said.
As Vavra turned around after crossing the plate, he got ready to signal to Mullins whether to slide. Then he saw Henderson on Mullins’ heels, and he couldn’t believe how quickly his fellow rookie caught up to the outfielder.
“He’s uber-talented,” Vavra said. “He’s a great kid with a good head on his shoulders, so the fact he’s able to carry it over into these bigger moments is not surprising, but it’s great to see.”
The sudden burst of energy ignited the Orioles-heavy crowd at Nationals Park, who chanted “Let’s go O’s” after shortstop Jorge Mateo sent Thompson’s next pitch over the left field fence. And in the eighth, Henderson’s blast off the right-field fence plated Mullins for his career-high fourth RBI.
The offensive output cleared the line for Wells, who allowed two solo homers and nothing else, and it positioned right-hander Austin Voth for the win against his former club.
The boost Henderson has given Baltimore has been apparent on an everyday basis and through memorable moments. In his second major league at-bat, he clobbered a homer for his first hit — and lost his helmet. That helmet also fell off during his ninth-inning single in that game. Henderson has provided a game-winning hit against the Boston Red Sox and now a double and triple Wednesday against Washington.
Baltimore quickly found a solution for Henderson’s helmet, adding padding to the front and back and to the earflap. Now “it actually sits on my head,” Henderson said — a necessary evil for the protection of baseball’s top prospect.
As the youngest position player in baseball, Henderson owns a .328 batting average with an .890 OPS. Even as Mullins found himself out of the starting lineup against a left-handed starter for the fifth straight time, Henderson batted eighth despite the left-on-left matchup.
“You expect young players to go through their struggles early, and he’s been swinging a bat really well,” Hyde said. “I love that he uses the whole field.”
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Mullins later entered against the right-handed Nationals relievers, singling twice to provide a runner on base for Henderson. But Henderson’s presence throughout the evening shows Hyde’s willingness to give the burgeoning star those opportunities, even though both at-bats against Corbin ended in groundouts.
Henderson needed to be there once a right-hander stood on the mound. And once a right-hander was there, Henderson delivered another emphatic moment — the kind he’s had a penchant for less than a month into his big league career.
“I was just trying to do the job,” Henderson said. “Luckily enough, I was able to do a little bit more.”
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