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Orioles trying to keep it simple with outfield alignments — and the assists are piling up

For the second straight game, Orioles left fielder Austin Hays turned a single by New York Yankees third baseman Gio Urshela into an out.

A night after throwing out Aaron Judge at third base in the eighth inning on what manager Brandon Hyde and center field Cedric Mullins called a “game-saving play” after Baltimore’s 4-2 victory Monday, Hays picked up another outfield assist from left field when he nailed Giancarlo Stanton at home on Urshela’s bases-loaded single in the fourth inning of a 5-1 defeat Tuesday.

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Entering play, only 15 major league outfielders had multiple assists. Hays matched that in a span of six innings.

But Hays was in left field in the first place not only because he’s a dynamic playmaker there, but also because Hyde is trying to maintain simplicity for the Orioles’ other starting corner outfielder, DJ Stewart. After coming off the injured list, Stewart made his first eight starts in left field, but in the four games over the past week that Hyde has put both Stewart and Hays in the lineup, Stewart has been in right, and Hays has been in left.

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The Orioles’ preferred alignment is seemingly Hays in left, Mullins in center and Anthony Santander — a Gold Glove finalist in 2020 — in right, using that arrangement in their season-opening sweep against the Boston Red Sox with Stewart on the IL. Hays joined him after that series with a hamstring strain, and in Baltimore’s first game with all of its primary outfielders on the roster, Santander suffered a left ankle sprain and is on the 10-day IL now.

Ryan Mountcastle started four straight games in left field while both Hays and Stewart were hurt but has only played three games in the outfield in the nearly three weeks since. But as the Orioles have moved him down the defensive spectrum from shortstop, his work in the outfield has been predominantly in right.

“Austin Hays can play all three spots, and he’s very comfortable at all three,” Hyde said before Tuesday’s game. “I play Ryan Mountcastle in the outfield, he’ll be in left field. In the short term now with Santander out, I just wanted to keep DJ in right to give him everyday reps out there instead of flip-flopping him back and forth. We play Ryan in left, got DJ in right, if I played Hays in right, DJ in left — I just wanted DJ to play one spot, and that’s why we went with that.”

While Stewart has worked to improve defensively, his defensive metrics remain below average, though he has one of Baltimore’s five outfield assists, which was the second most of any team entering Tuesday. He’s often been replaced defensively in late innings, though the primary beneficiary of that playing time, Ryan McKenna, was optioned after Monday’s win. Hyde has praised both Hays and Stewart’s throwing arms, a trait that’s typically necessary for right fielders.

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“I’m comfortable with Austin in all three spots,” Hyde said. “He’s comfortable anywhere.”

Hays has shown that. When Santander got hurt while the team was playing the Miami Marlins, Hays, in his first game off injured list, replaced him in right field and quickly made a stellar play against the wall. Throughout his September 2019 tear, he made several tremendous plays in center field, from dives to home run robberies. In the past couple of games, he’s shown off his arm, too.

It’s likely that when Santander returns, he’ll join Hays and Mullins as the club’s primary outfielders. Mullins has been the team’s top hitter thus far, while Hays has raised his OPS from .391 to .752 in the past four games. In the meantime, Stewart will man right field.

“I just want to make it a little bit easier for DJ,” Hyde said, “just playing one spot for a while.”

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