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Orioles' Hays says return to Bowie a 'bit of a letdown,' but realizes there's still work to do

Austin Hays arrived at his first big league spring training realizing that even coming off a remarkable season in which he ascended to becoming the Orioles’ top prospect, he’d have to earn an Opening Day roster spot.

But being assigned to start the season back in Double-A Bowie, where he posted a .960 OPS in 64 games last season, was a disappointment, Hays conceded Monday.

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“I would say that it’s a little bit of a letdown,” Hays said. “You come in from a really hard offseason where I put in a lot of time into trying to get bigger, faster, stronger for spring and try to win a job. But I’m thankful I got the opportunity with the Orioles and they invited me to camp. It’s only my second spring training and I got to spend it in big league camp, so I learned a lot. I can take a lot away from it and just be better prepared for next time.”

Hays, 22, played for the Tides in Monday’s exhibition game in Norfolk, finishing with two hits and scoring twice. But he returned to Sarasota, Fla., to complete minor league camp games and will open the season at Bowie.

Hays was the first player from the 2016 draft class to reach the major leagues, so his climb was quick, going from High-A Frederick to a big league call-up in September when rosters expanded last year. Some might have anointed him the everyday right fielder when camp began, but the signing of veteran Colby Rasmus to start in right, along with the emergence of Rule 5 draft pick Anthony Santander and a steady spring from Craig Gentry left Hays on the outside looking in.

Few minor leaguers could match the season Hays had last year. Between Frederick and Bowie, he hit .329 with 32 homers and 95 RBIs, posting a .958 OPS. Despite a .365 on-base percentage, Hays walked just 25 times in 563 plate appearances. And when he arrived in Baltimore, he walked just twice — and struck out 16 times — in 63 plate appearances.

So, when the Orioles informed Hays he was returning to the minors, they told him they didn’t want him to change much, only to focus on being more patient at the plate.

“It’s just continuing my at-bats and learn from the successes and failures that I’ve had, just keep playing the game the way I do,” Hays said. “They said they love what I bring to the table, they love my energy, they love the way I go about my business. They said not to change anything personally, but just to try to be more disciplined at the plate, just to continue and further my approach a little bit. That was just the biggest thing.”

Hays’ spring bid was hindered by physical problems — a lat injury affected his throwing and held him out of playing the outfield for most of two weeks — but he said he received more than enough plate appearances. Hays hit .243/.275/.297 with no homers and four RBIs in 37 spring at-bats, striking out 12 times and walking twice.

“I guess it was a little bit of a setback,” Hays said of the lat injury. “But like I’ve said before, it realty didn’t keep me from getting my at-bats, getting my plate appearances and the innings. So I don’t think it was that big a setback. I just didn’t have the spring I was hoping for and there were some other guys who put up some really good numbers, and they did what they had to do. So that’s just how the game goes.”

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