With their bench short after placing struggling first baseman Chris Davis on the injured list with hip soreness this weekend, the Orioles recalled hot-hitting outfielder DJ Stewart from Triple-A Norfolk on Tuesday.
His unstoppable stretch in May — he hit .456/.512/.882 with 17 extra-base hits this month — proved too much for manager Brandon Hyde and executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias to ignore. And it was born out of a hitting session that, coming off a two-hit day at the end of a 10-game, three-city road trip, Stewart would have been forgiven for passing on.
Instead, he unlocked a mindset that launched him back to the majors and into what will likely be an everyday role for Hyde.
“The day that the hot-streak started, I had early-work with [hitting coach Butch Davis] and [manager Gary Kendall] down there, and something clicked for me, just the way they worded things,” Stewart said. “It took off from there.”
Stewart, the team's first-round draft pick in 2015, held his own in his first month in the majors last September but was among the first cuts in major league camp this spring, partially because of his performance and a crowded outfield picture. But after a slow start at Norfolk, Stewart had the hottest May in the minors. It began after Norfolk returned home from a marathon road trip, when Stewart’s two-hit day in the last game in Durham on May 1 only served to raise his average to .218.
“I was struggling a little bit,” Stewart said. “We came back from Durham and they said, ‘I've got some stuff for you if you want to have early work.’ I said, 'Of course.' Any time you're struggling, the more you can hear ... but it came from them, and outside people as well. I have summer-ball coaches that I've talked to, my dad as well, just kind of seeing what they see as well, because they watch my games pretty much every single night. Kind of all of it going into one helped me.”
Stewart said the diagnosis was simple.
“I was pulling off of everything, trying to kill the ball — you've seen Norfolk with the wind,” Stewart said. “Just trying to hit through the wind and just not being myself, and using the whole field. I was pull-happy, big-time. Once I kind of simplified everything and hit the ball where it was pitched and was consistently barreling balls up, they started falling. … Then that night, I don't remember what I did that night, but I think I had a hit or two and wanted to go from there. It kept going.”
He had a hit that night to open Norfolk’s homestand, and his sparkling May raised his season line all the way to .316/.425/.586 in 43 games.
Hyde said Stewart, who was handed his first start Tuesday in right field against the Detroit Tigers, “definitely earned his way here.”
“We told a lot of those guys in our exit meetings in spring training to go down to Triple-A with a chip on your shoulder and prove to everybody that you should be in the big leagues and do everything you can to get back here,” Hyde said. “Got off to a slow start, but like everybody knows, he really swung the bat well and is playing great.”
Last week, Kendall said the difference between the two stretches for Stewart was that he was being more selective when he started getting pitches to hit.
"He's got to get good pitches to hit," Kendall told The Baltimore Sun. "I think he'd be the first to admit that when he gets a little too over-aggressive and starts swinging at pitches out of the strike zone, and when he's going good — because he's got a very keen eye for the strike zone — he knows a strike from a ball. What makes him best is during that actual period where he was absolutely raking, he was getting his fair share of walks.
"That's what kind of player he needs to be: stay in the strike zone. Certainly, a strong guy. He can fend for himself because of his strength. He battles in counts. There's been so many occasions this year where he's been 0-2 in a count and lays off some pitches down and winds up inducing a walk or gets a two-strike hit. He's a guy who's got strength to leave the ballpark. But I would say just staying in the strike zone, and not getting too away from his game, and his game — and not to say you want a guy to walk — but you want a guy to be selective. You want guys to get good pitches to hit."
Stewart, who has played both left field and right field in the minors, will join an outfield group that includes Keon Broxton, Dwight Smith Jr. and Stevie Wilkerson, with Trey Mancini and Renato Núñez filling in for Davis at first.