Orioles center fielder Austin Hays makes the catch at the wall on a ball hit by Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. during the fourth inning Thursday.
Orioles center fielder Austin Hays makes the catch at the wall on a ball hit by Toronto Blue Jays' Vladimir Guerrero Jr. during the fourth inning Thursday. (Julio Cortez / AP)

Upon his return to solid ground, Austin Hays let out a celebratory yell. A piece of gum clinging to his teeth, he pounded his chest three times as he stood on Camden Yards’ center-field warning track, giving another exclamation.

“Let’s go!”

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A leap and a reach at the center-field wall had ended with the ball in his glove. He threw it back toward the infield while munching on that gum, savoring the best defensive play an Orioles outfielder has supplied in 2019. Toronto Blue Jays rookie Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was the victim of Hays’ home run robbery, his drive to center meeting Hays’ extended left arm and glove just shy of the 398 feet Statcast projected it to travel. Guerrero removed his batting helmet and tipped it in Hays’ direction as the Orioles did the same from the dugout, with the Orioles’ rookie returning the recognition with his cap as the announced crowd of 10,148 offered a standing ovation.

“It’s kind of the catch you dream about, playing in the backyard, playing Wiffle Ball and all that,” Hays said afterward. “It’s just raw emotion. You don’t get to do something like that every day.”

Hays figured his fourth-inning robbery was his first since he was in high school. It denied Guerrero of what would’ve been Toronto’s third straight home run off right-hander Gabriel Ynoa, and naturally, Hays added a solo shot of his own in the eighth, his first at Oriole Park and first in the majors since Sept. 16, 2017. Neither of his major contributions was enough to overcome a third straight bullpen collapse in an 8-4 loss as the Blue Jays swept, but that didn’t make his play any less impressive.

“It’s got to be one of the best catches of the year, period,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said.

“I wanted to run to center field, hug him, jump up and down,” Ynoa said through team interpreter Ramón Alarcón.

“Unbelievable,” right fielder Trey Mancini said. “I’m glad I got a front-row seat for it.”

Once the Orioles’ top prospect after a 32-homer season in the minors in 2017, Hays struggled during his cup of coffee that season and battled injuries the past two years. His long-awaited return to Camden Yards came Sept. 7, when he ranged far to his right on his first opportunity in center field to make a catch at the wall then made a diving catch to his left on the next play. He added to his highlight reel with Thursday’s play.

He’s also performed better offensively than his previous time with the Orioles (49-104), with his home run bringing his batting line to .345/.424/.586. Notably, with two walks Thursday, he drew four in his first 31 major league plate appearances this year after walking only twice in 63 trips to the plate in 2017.

“He’s an aggressive player, and if he can learn to lay off borderline pitches the way he did tonight and get the ball in the strike zone, he’s gonna be a really good player,” Hyde said. “I like the edge the guy plays with.”

The highlight, of course, came with his glove.

“He comes out and plays with fire every night,” Mancini said. “He just plays so hard, and in the right way. That was awesome to see, just the raw emotion after the catch. I’m really happy he’s back up here and healthy, showing everybody what he can do because he’s a really good ballplayer.”

No relief here

Beyond the back-to-back homers from Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Ynoa cruised until the seventh, when Randal Grichuk grounded a one-out double past first baseman Renato Núñez and down the right-field line. That hit caused Hyde to end Ynoa’s night after 77 pitches and bring in left-hander Tanner Scott, who took the mound with 10 strikeouts against one walk in six innings since his September promotion.

But Scott managed only one strike in his first nine pitches, loading the bases and prompting Hyde to make another move despite left-handed hitter Derek Fisher being Toronto’s next hitter. Right-hander Dillon Tate walked Fisher on five pitches to give the Blue Jays the lead and, after striking out Bo Bichette, allowed three straight run-scoring hits to Biggio, Gurriel and Guerrero as Toronto scored six times in the seventh.

“It’s just young guys that are really inconsistent," Hyde said. "You’re never sure what you’re gonna get.”

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In the series, the Blue Jays (62-91) scored 18 earned runs against the Orioles’ bullpen, which had allowed 30 earned runs total in a 26-game span from Aug. 20 through Monday.

Mancini keeps mashing

Mancini had a wrapped left leg after the game, nursing a welt an old friend provided.

He recorded hits in his first four at-bats for his second career four-hit game, contributing to Baltimore’s first three runs and driving in two of them. He stepped into the box in the ninth inning against Blue Jays right-hander Justin Shafer, who grew up minutes away from Mancini in Florida and shared a travel-ball team with him until they went to rival high schools.

“We played tennis together growing up, baseball," Mancini said. “We were always on the same team."

They certainly weren’t Thursday, with Shafer hitting Mancini with a 93-mph sinker.

“I said, ‘I was taking a strike right there!’" Mancini said. "I was just joking around with him.

“It’s pretty cool to face him at this level.”

The hope is that the ice for the welt won’t also cool down Mancini’s bat. He delivered RBI doubles in the third and seventh, and his fifth-inning single moved Hanser Alberto to third, allowing him to score on Anthony Santander’s fielder’s choice. He’s batting .366 in September, while his two doubles joined him with Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon as the only majors leaguers with 36 doubles, 34 homers and 100 runs scored in 2019.

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