SARASOTA, Fla. — The Orioles surged into and remained in the playoff race last season despite getting relatively minimal contributions over the latter half of the season from two of their most significant right-handed hitters. On Wednesday, Austin Hays and Ryan Mountcastle offered signs of improved form.
In a 7-4 exhibition victory against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hays hit his second three-run home run in three days and, an inning later, Mountcastle rocketed a high-velocity pitch to left for a grand slam.
“His went a little farther than mine,” Hays said with a laugh.
Last season, Hays, 27, was Baltimore’s most impactful hitter early before nagging injuries and imbalance in his hitting mechanics led to a dramatic second-half slump. Mountcastle, 26, had less dramatic splits in that regard, but his results also dipped beginning in late June; he was among baseball’s most unfortunate hitters over the course of the season, with his luck worsening further in the season’s final months.
Through June 23 — the day after Hays hit for the cycle in six innings against the Washington Nationals — the pair combined for an .819 OPS and 132 weighted runs created plus (an all-encompassing offensive stat where 100 is league average) in 525 plate appearances. From then on, their collective OPS was .648 with a wRC+ of 85 over 666 plate appearances.
“I never saw their attitude waver last year,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I thought they took as good of at-bats as they could throughout the year. They’ve always come to the ballpark ready to play. They both play hard. So now, it’s just Austin making some adjustments, both these guys just being a little bit more consistent, but [they’re] still young players.”
Mountcastle’s job at first base is fairly secure, though there’s a collection of candidates vying to back him up. Hays, meanwhile, might have to fight for playing time in the outfield throughout the year; Kyle Stowers offers a left-handed alternative and could be on the opening day roster, and Colton Cowser, Baltimore’s first-round pick in 2021, should arrive in the majors at some point this summer.
Despite missing some games after his left hand was stepped on during a slide into first base and battling a nagging right wrist injury, Hays went without an injured list stint for the first time since his first full professional season in 2017.
“The number one goal is still the same thing: be available for every game,” he said. “I think the numbers will be there by the end of the year.”
Before the game, Hyde offered updates on several of the Orioles’ injured players.
- Left-hander DL Hall (lower back discomfort) threw a bullpen Wednesday and will pitch a live batting practice session in the coming days. Hyde has said Hall, Baltimore’s No. 2 pitching prospect, won’t have enough time to build up to make the Orioles’ opening day rotation, so he will either open the year as a starter in Triple-A or a reliever in the majors.
- Closer Félix Bautista also will throw live batting practice soon. Bautista’s impressive rookie season ended a few days early with a left knee sprain, and he also underwent a shoulder strengthening program this offseason. He’s expected to get into a spring training game late next week, which would put him on track for opening day.
- Left-handed reliever Nick Vespi (hernia surgery) will pitch a simulated game soon. He remains a candidate for Baltimore’s opening day bullpen.
- Right-handed reliever Dillon Tate (forearm strain) threw off a half mound Wednesday. Despite that step, Tate isn’t expected to be ready until the end of April at the earliest.
- Utility player Terrin Vavra’s left shoulder discomfort is waning, and the Orioles hope he’s able to return to games within the next couple of days.
Left-handed hitter of the day
Franchy Cordero’s single in his lone at-bat Wednesday likely doesn’t count as continuing the steak, but the Orioles’ search for a left-handed bench bat has featured one candidate impressing per day of late. On Sunday, Lewin Díaz showed off a swing and glove work that left Hyde impressed. Ryan O’Hearn drove a walk-off, three-run home run out to left-center field on Monday. Josh Lester went 3-for-3 in Tuesday’s game.
Adding Nomar Mazara to those four accounts for the nonroster invitees in the mix; Vavra and Stowers are contending to return to the majors after playing sparingly in their rookie stints. All but Díaz have shown a capability of playing multiple positions, while Stowers and Mazara are the only ones who wouldn’t see time at first base.
“I feel like all of them are playing well,” Hyde said. “Diaz is taking good at-bats. O’Hearn’s taking really good at-bats, driving in a bunch of runs and hitting the ball hard. Franchy Cordero, we know Franchy from the past a little bit with Boston. I like what all of these guys are doing.
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“For me, we’ve got some guys that can move around the outfield, too. Kyle Stowers is swinging the bat extremely well. It’s good to see. Vav was swinging the bat good before he got banged up, but nice to see all these guys that are kind of competing for big league jobs playing well.”
O’Hearn, who is 7-for-14 this spring, said he hopes all of them play well and make the decision tough on the Orioles.
“Very rarely in my career, especially at the big league level, has it ever been, ‘Hey, you’re the guy,’” he said. “It’s always been, ‘You’re gonna have to work for it.’ So I think I embrace that. I don’t mind a challenge. I don’t mind adversity. Ultimately, I get to show up and play baseball every day, and that’s a beautiful thing, right? So just looking at it as an opportunity.
“I want everyone to be the best version of themselves. When we break camp, wherever the cards land, I’ll accept my role and my job and do the best I can moving forward.”
Orioles at Phillies
Thursday, 1:05 p.m.