SARASOTA, FLA. — Every start Cedric Mullins gets in center field this spring is an opportunity to show the job should remain his when the regular season begins in late March.
Even if his bat isn't coming around like some of the team's other young outfielders', starts like Friday's — with a walk, a steal, a sacrifice bunt and an acrobatic catch in the field — can help his cause, manager Brandon Hyde said.
“It’s just playing the game,” Hyde said. “That’s what we’ve been talking all about, playing the game and playing without fear. That bunt was on his own. He makes the play in center field. … Guys are playing, and it looks like they’re enjoying it.”
Mullins, 24, worked a full-count walk off wild Boston Red Sox left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez to open the Orioles' first inning, then swiped second base for his third steal in three tries to reach scoring position.
The Orioles then tried a double-steal that landed Mullins at third, but DJ Stewart was out at second base. In his subsequent at-bats, Mullins grounded into a force out, and laid down a successful sacrifice bunt to advance Drew Jackson into scoring position in the fifth inning.
In between, he made a leaping catch into the center-field wall to take away extra bases from Christian Vázquez on a drive that would have put pitcher Gabriel Ynoa in a big bind early.
Not much of that translates on the stat sheet, though, so even with a positive game, Mullins enters the weekend with just four hits — a single, two doubles and a home run — and three walks in 28 plate appearances. He's been better of late, but will hope the Orioles are evaluating the whole package.
Mullins said earlier this week that camp has been just as much about earning the job as solidifying it.
"I'd say both," Mullins said. "The competition is definitely there. I've had guys rotating in an out of center field, and as long as that's the case, I'm going to continue to compete for the spot that I want."
Hyde was asked Thursday about how Mullins has been an assumed shoo-in to start in center field and bat leadoff. Hyde said he hasn't considered a batting order at this point — only that his top four hitters on a given day will be the top four in the lineup — and that Mullins was only going to get a good opportunity to assume those roles.
"I think it's fair to assume he's going to get every opportunity to be the center fielder, or to get a lot of playing time," Hyde said. "He's going to get a big opportunity to win a big league job. I can't say in cement that he's going to be our Opening Day center fielder, just like a lot of our guys, but he's going to get every opportunity to win that job and to be on a club and to be a big part of our lineup."
Mullins made his major league debut Aug. 10, with longtime center fielder Adam Jones ceding his position to the rookie. That was one of several indications of the team's transition to the future. Mullins, a 2015 13th-round draft pick out of Campbell University, hit .235 with a .671 OPS and 13 extra-base hits in 45 games with the Orioles last season.
He played a solid center field, though his arm was challenged at times, and after stealing 21 bases in 22 tries in the minors before his debut, Mullins was successful twice in five major league attempts.
Earlier in spring training, Mullins said he learned a lot about what it took to play the length of a big league season, and he's being regarded as a bit of a regular in the Grapefruit League, frequently playing home games and on a set schedule.
However, center field certainly hasn't belonged to him alone this spring. His longtime teammate and friend Austin Hays has played five games in center field to Mullins' eight. Rule 5 draft pick Drew Jackson has gotten four looks in center field with one start as the team gets a glimpse of what he can do there and at both middle-infield spots. Among the players still in camp, Yusniel Diaz, Joey Rickard and Christopher Bostick have played center field as well.
Mullins said he’s feeding off that, knowing the talent that’s vying for a position that was always assumed to be his.
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"We're always talking to it, and we vibe off each other's energy," Mullins said. "When it's our time to go out there, we're like, 'Hey, do what you've got to do. Handle your business and put your best foot out there.' ”