Before his final at-bat of Saturday’s loss to the Oakland Athletics, Austin Hays chatted with fellow Orioles outfielder Cedric Mullins in the dugout, sharing with his hot-hitting teammate that he felt the game was moving too quickly since he came off the injured list earlier in the week. Mullins offered simple advice: Slow everything down, from your walk to home plate to your pre-pitch routine.
Hays singled in that last at-bat, then carried the momentum forward with two home runs Sunday to back John Means’ dominant start as Orioles beat the A’s, 8-1, to end Oakland’s 13-game winning streak, the longest in the major leagues since 2017.
“It’s definitely good to talk to the guys that are hitting .350 because there’s something they’re doing right,” Hays quipped.
Hays entered Sunday with one extra-base hit in his first 27 plate appearances, then homered in his first two at-bats off A’s left-hander Jesús Luzardo. That provided all the support needed for Means, who turned in 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball in front of 8,107 fans, who gave him a standing ovation as he exited.
“When he’s playing well, he does everything so great,” Means said. “Plays outfield well, has a great arm, steals bases, obviously hits homers. When he gets hot, he doesn’t really cool off, it seems like, so I’m excited to see what he has in store for the next month or so.”
Baltimore’s most productive hitter in spring training, Hays had been unable to carry that success into the regular season, missing more than two weeks with a hamstring strain on top of his struggles. But in the second inning Sunday, he crushed a 96 mph fastball from Luzardo out to left-center field at 108.3 mph, the second hardest he’s put a ball in play in his major league career, according to MLB’s Statcast data.
“It shows you the dynamic type of hitter he can be and a lot of our guys can be when they just learn to stay on the baseball and be on time with the fastball,” manager Brandon Hyde said.
He added another rocket in the fourth, sending a two-run shot out to right-center field at 104.9 mph, per Statcast. It gave Hays his first multihomer game since the final week of the 2019 season, when he used that September to seemingly springboard himself as the Orioles’ center fielder of the future. The reemergence of Mullins, who added three more hits Sunday, has created some competition in that regard, with Hays also spending time on the injured list in the shortened 2020 season.
But days like Sunday show how exciting of a player he can be. After Maikel Franco homered in the eighth, Hays drew his first walk of 2021 between free passes to Ryan Mountcastle and Ramón Urías to load the bases for Ryan McKenna, who worked a 10-pitch walk to bring in Baltimore’s fifth run and earn his first career RBI. After Mullins reached on an error, Trey Mancini hit a two-run single as the Orioles (9-12) batted around in a five-run eighth.
“You hope that something like this kick-starts the offense and really gets us going,” Hays said. “That big inning, it just stemmed from us staying in the zone. We were still aggressive. We were swinging. We weren’t going up there to take, but we were just being aggressive to strikes. I think once we start doing that consistently as a team, we’re going to have more consistent run production.”
Means on a mission
On a pitching staff that’s going to be desperate for innings over the course of the 2021 season, Means continues to be a reliable source. For the third time in five starts, Means pitched into the seventh inning. He remains the only Orioles starter to do so through 21 games.
In handing Oakland (14-8) its first loss in more than two weeks, Means limited the A’s to two hits, one being a solo home run from Ramón Laureano in the fourth inning that ended the 13-inning scoreless streak he carried into the frame. He followed with a walk to Matt Chapman, but he retired the next eight A’s before his afternoon ended when he walked Chapman again on his 101st pitch with one out in the seventh. He became the first Orioles starter to reach the 100-pitch mark since Sept. 22, 2019, when he did so a day before Hays’ previous two-homer game.
Adam Plutko stranded Chapman at first to finish the seventh and keep Means’ ERA at 1.50, the lowest among all major leaguers who have made at least five starts.
“He was exceptional today,” Hyde said. “That is a really good lineup, and for him to have the stuff that he had and to get into the seventh inning, really impressive. Loved the curveball today, aggressiveness with his fastball, good changeups again, but in, out, up, down. Just really competitive.”
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Dating to last season, Means has allowed one run or fewer in eight of his past nine starts.
“It was nice finishing the  season strong and going into this season with confidence and getting back to who I am as a pitcher,” Means said. “I just feel very comfortable right now with mentality and stuff. Just trying to keep that going.”
After the Orioles’ five-run eighth, left-hander Zac Lowther made his major league debut in the ninth. Baltimore’s No. 19 prospect according to Baseball America, Lowther allowed a leadoff single but retired the next three A’s, striking out Chapman looking to end the game and Oakland’s winning streak.
“When the score got to where it got to, I was pumped to watch him on the mound, and he didn’t disappoint,” Hyde said. “Threw strikes, showed multiple pitches, didn’t look nervous. I’m sure he was. ... Cool moment for him.”
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