TORONTO — Ryan Flaherty realizes he earns his paychecks with his glove, and the Orioles utility man takes pride in making a difference with his defense.
Flaherty does, however, have some pop in his bat, as he displayed Tuesday when he hit a 96-mph, full-count pitch from Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura onto Eutaw Street and off the Warehouse on a bounce in the Orioles' 9-1 win over Kansas City. He made his first homer of the season a memorable one, a 446-foot blast that will eventually get a plaque on Eutaw Street.
"It felt good," Flaherty said. "The guys were ragging me pretty good about it. I was giving it to them back. I let [slugger Mark] Trumbo know the distance on it so that was pretty good. It feels good to hit one like that. ... The versatility and the defense is nice but everybody loves some offense. ... I think it seems like its always the same guys, but I think when you see some of the guys at the bottom of the order do it also, it's fun for the team I think."
Since the Orioles made Flaherty their Rule 5 pick before the 2012 season, the former first-round pick out of Vanderbilt has fit nicely into the utility role. He has played seven positions (including designated hitter) during his major league career, everywhere in the field except center field and catcher — and he even serves as the club's emergency catcher.
This year, he's played mostly third base. With starting shortstop J.J. Hardy out nearly six weeks with a foot injury, third baseman Manny Machado has shifted over to short, meaning Flaherty is manning third on most nights.
"It's a necessity," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said when asked whether having a capable utility man is a necessity or luxury. "It's like a long reliever. You can't survive without him. And they've got to be able to bring something."
Of all the positions in the infield, Flaherty concedes third base is probably where he's least comfortable. Second base and shortstop are his bread and butter, but he's learned to become a valuable third baseman.
His seven defensive runs saved this season trail only the Texas Rangers' Adrian Beltre, a four-time Gold Glove winner, among American League third basemen. But Flaherty said becoming comfortable at third has been a process.
"It can be challenging," Flaherty said. "I think before I came here, it was like kind of a nightmare. You can get a lot of tough balls. You can be the best third baseman in the league and sometimes you can get balls hit to you that are really tough. You don't field the ball as much as you kind of play goalie half of the time. You get weird hops. ...
"You come to terms with that, and [infield coach] Bobby Dickerson's done a great job of helping me at third."
On Wednesday night against Kansas City, Flaherty made one of the most unique double plays imaginable. Playing in on the grass at third, he caught Jarrod Dyson's bunt on the fly, then, on the run, immediately threw across his body to Machado at second base to double up base runner Cheslor Cuthbert.
"One thing is that I should never be out of position because I should know where everyone should be at that position," Flaherty said. "You can never use that excuse. With shifts and stuff, players kind of play every position now. Manny has played shortstop. He was a third baseman, but he's played shortstop a quarter of the time just because of where we line up. The play yesterday, you kind of know where people are going to be and when you're playing with guys, you kind of get used to it."
But Flaherty's defensive impact at third has been important. It has meant Showalter hasn't had to move Machado between shortstop and third base in Hardy's absence, and the Orioles have been able to keep two plus defenders on the right side of the infield while they are missing their Gold Glove shortstop.
"Ryan is a rope-puller," Showalter said. "He grabs the rope and he pulls and you know what you get from him. I'm looking for people we can trust, and it doesn't mean they're All-Stars or guys who are that newsworthy, but they're trustworthy. I'd rather them be trustworthy than newsworthy. We know what we're going to get from him. It might not always statistically light up your fantasy league, but it's a winning player. Ryan's a winning player."
Flaherty's presence will be even more instrumental when Machado eventually serves his suspension for charging the mound. Machado received a four-game suspension and is appealing the punishment, but will likely face some sort of penalty.
"I know [former utility man] Mark DeRosa told me one time in spring training one year, no matter what position you're playing, try to outplay the guy on the other side who is playing that position that night from a utility standpoint," Flaherty said. "I kind of took that to heart. When you get chance to go out there — when somebody's hurt or someone's down — you take pride in trying to help the team along. And if it's in that situation where J.J.'s out or Manny is out, you're just trying to do everything you can to help the team win."
Flaherty struggled at the plate earlier this season, but is starting to find his stroke. He went 25 games before driving in his first run this season, hitting just .175 over that span, but since then Flaherty has raised his batting average 34 points, posted a .837 OPS and has hit safely in eight of his last 11 games heading into Friday. Over his last six games, Flaherty is hitting .308/.438/.615.
"You try to go out early as much as you can, you try to do anything," Flaherty said. "Maybe something just clicks, nothing in particular. It's nothing in particular because even early in the year, I was hitting early and I wasn't getting results and you're still doing it now and you are getting results. There's not one thing to pinpoint. Maybe it's just timing I guess."