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‘Always ready, never in a hurry’: Orioles hitters quickly ramping up for shortened season

On a team stocked with young position players, Orioles hitting coach Don Long encourages a mix of aggression and discipline. He sums up the approach in six words.

“Always ready,” Long said on a Zoom call Friday, “never in a hurry.”

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With two weeks until Opening Day of a season the coronavirus pandemic shortened to 60 games, Long’s hitters are, in many ways, forced to be hurried. Adding to the difficulty of such circumstances is that several Orioles had few or no opportunities against live pitching in the almost four months since the virus shut down spring training and delayed the regular season.

“Even during a season, under normal circumstances, the biggest disconnect in hitting from practice to game is finding opportunities to replicate game speed,” Long said. “You can imagine without that available at all over a three-and-a-half-month period, it makes it very challenging.”

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Some batters were able to hit only off a tee, Long said. Infielder Pat Valaika recently told manager Brandon Hyde that he spent the past few months hitting in his garage. Others lived in areas where they were able to gather with fellow players and thus had the opportunity to face pitchers.

From the first day of workouts July 3, the Orioles held sessions of live batting practice, which shortstop José Iglesias said he didn’t do during the shutdown. He then doubled twice in his first intrasquad action Thursday after dealing with some back pain.

Orioles hitting coach Don Long gets baseballs ready for batting practice for the last preseason workout at Oriole Park at Camden Yards before the 2019 season opener in New York on Thursday.
Orioles hitting coach Don Long gets baseballs ready for batting practice for the last preseason workout at Oriole Park at Camden Yards before the 2019 season opener in New York on Thursday. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

“I did not get an opportunity to hit live BP before; I know it seems like it because I feel pretty good at the plate,” Iglesias said. “I was just doing a lot of physical [work] and playing catch, doing everything we can with every park being closed and this COVID-19 situation that we’re dealing through.”

Despite those difficulties, Long said the Orioles can’t use them as an excuse, given that all other organizations’ position players are facing the same challenges. One week into camp, Baltimore has two weeks until Opening Day at the Boston Red Sox on July 24, with a handful of intrasquads and three exhibition games between, and Long said that has to be enough to prepare his hitters.

“We don’t have the luxury of changing our reality right now,” Long said. “We have to work within what we have, and we have to have the expectation that we will be ready to perform come Opening Day. Whether I think that’s enough or not is irrelevant, and I don’t really want to spend any of my time nor do I want any of our hitters to spend any of our time building in an excuse to not be ready. We plan on being ready, whatever that looks like in the beginning.”

On an individual level, Long has seen growth from Chris Davis in their second year working together. Davis, preparing for the fifth season of what was originally a seven-year, $161 million contract, entered the first camp with added muscle and proceeded to tie for the spring lead in walks and post a 1.682 OPS. Long sees signs that similar results can carry into the season.

“The thing that he’s carried over from March,” Long said, " is he has made a decision to be up there and be ready to hit and not be so in-between and not be uncomfortable up there and [have a] willingness to let the results be what they are, but give himself the best opportunity to be successful by really being ready to hit and having the mentality to be up there ready to swing the bat and attack the ball and do some damage. It was really refreshing, after being with him last year, to see him come in with that outlook.”

Davis continued that trend in his first at-bat of Friday’s intrasquad game, singling off the center-field wall against left-hander Rob Zastryzny. From Iglesias’ two-double Thursday to Valaika’s garage training leading to “lacing balls all over the place” as Hyde put it, some Orioles have come out of the four-month shutdown swinging.

“I think it all depends on the individual,” Hyde said. “I think guys get their timing at different times during spring training. Some guys have a little simpler swing. Some guys have a little bit more movement. Some guys are a little bit more timing guys; I think it takes them a little longer. I think all of our guys came in at a different spot from a ready standpoint, but I think we have time. We’re gonna have two more weeks of a lot of at-bats, and I would think that our guys will be comfortable and ready to go.”

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