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Orioles pass starting torch to rookie Austin Hays in effort to see if he can keep it in 2018

Typically, Austin Hays spends whatever part of batting practice he's not swinging under the turtle shell frantically chasing down every ball hit his direction in the outfield. But on Thursday, he spent that time hunched behind a screen near third base with Buck Showalter as the Orioles manager had a conversation he uses as a barometer for how a rookie is getting along.

As the Orioles move into the final week of the season with Hays as their everyday right fielder, while the more seasoned players who manned that spot all year move aside for him, Showalter wanted to gauge how the rookie outfielder was assessing things. He liked what he heard.

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"I had my first kind of talk with him yesterday, kind of getting a feel for what he thinks," Showalter said. "I remember sitting down and talking to Mark Teixeira the first time I had him in Texas, kind of saying, 'Hey, what's caught you by surprise? What's different than you thought?' That's always a really interesting conversation for me.

"He's got a nice confidence about him, but not without respect for what's going on. There's not a lot of 'deer in the headlights' for him. I think that's been good to see. Some people may look at it differently. I look at it as a good thing. It was pretty interesting what he had to say though, too."

The 22-year-old Hays, for his part, said that conversation was enlightening on both ends.

"I told him that seeing the games on TV and watching from the stands, it seems like the game is going really slow, but when you're playing, it's a lot faster than what I thought — the tempo of the game is quicker than anywhere else," Hays said. "It's just in between innings is the only thing that's longer. But the tempo of the game is faster than what I thought."

That's no problem for Hays, for whom everything in professional baseball has come quickly, and who likes it that way. He battled a wrist injury in his short-season debut last year after the Orioles made him their 2016 third-round draft pick out of Jacksonville. But he hit .329 with 32 home runs and 32 doubles between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie this year and was promoted to the majors as the first 2016 draftee in all of baseball to reach the majors on Sept. 5.

After a week of watching and waiting his turn, Hays has started eight straight games, and entered Friday batting .290 with four multihit games already.

"I've kind of had an opportunity to do it all now," Hays said. "Come in off the bench and pinch hit, go play defense off the bench, and now I've had a few starts in a row. It's good. I'm getting playing time from every aspect."

Hays has come to learn quickly that not only does the game move quickly, but so does everything around it. When he misplayed a ground ball Thursday night for an error on the play when the Tampa Bay Rays scored their only run, Showalter said such things were why he is handing Hays a regular role for the last 10 days of the season, and gave veteran Seth Smith a heads up that would be the case before Thursday's game.

"There's things you learn — that faster is not always better," Showalter said. "Sometimes, you've got to slow the game down a little bit. 'OK, that ball is hit really hard. If I catch this ball cleanly, he's not going to score.' There's no reason to try to rush there.

"But it's like I was talking to Austin, there's a lot of things he's going to have to experience themselves,. I have a problem with mistakes, but only if you repeat them. Little things you do, you've got to file them away and develop that trust with your teammates and your coaches that you're going to know how to approach those things. This guy was at Jacksonville a year and a half ago."

Showalter said part of the conversation he alluded to with Teixeira was about the treatment the young star was getting from veterans. That's been no problem with Hays, who has quickly shown the older Orioles that he's not going to ruffle feathers and simply wants to observe.

"It's very valuable to see how they go about their business, see their routines and how they've been able to be in the game for so long and play so many games and how they take care of their bodies," Hays said. "It's very valuable to hear from those guys and see their outlook on things."

One of those players is Smith, whose playing time against right-handed pitching has diminished sharply since Hays became a regular.

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"That's what I do — whatever I'm asked to do is what I'm going to do," Smith said. "If it's play, I play. If it's come off the bench, I come off the bench. If it's talking to new guys about the way things are done and how to go about your business, that's kind of what everybody does."

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