BOWIE — Thursday’s second game of the Eastern League Division Series seemed destined for a fitting ending for the Orioles organization, with one of the top two prospects in Double-A Bowie’s lineup set to drive in the other for a walk-off victory.
Instead, as Yusniel Diaz smoked the sixth pitch of his 11th-inning at-bat toward right field, Ryan McKenna took off from second, straying too far to make it back in time when Diaz’s liner landed in a glove. The inning-ending double play preceded a Harrisburg Senators run in the top of the 12th, leaving the Baysox with a 5-4 loss and an even series instead of a 2-0 advantage in the Eastern League’s best-of-five semifinals.
The Baysox bounced back on Friday night for a 7-5 win and a 2-1 lead in the series.
Thursday’s play showed that even as the Baysox pursue an Eastern League title, the minor leagues remain primarily about development. A night in which Diaz went 0-for-5 and stranded four runners and McKenna twice made outs on the bases displayed part of why the outfield duo spent the full season in Double-A after spending the latter half of last year with Bowie, as well.
“There’s a lot to learn,” Baysox manager Buck Britton said. “Speed of the game here is quicker than it is in A-ball, and you’ve got to be willing to make adjustments. That’s the biggest thing. There’s guys out here, this league’s got a wide range. You’ve got young guys. You’ve got veterans. So you’ve got to be willing to make the adjustment on the spot.”
For the Eastern League, Diaz and McKenna are young, with both set to turn 23 early in the offseason. They recognize there remains room to grow.
Diaz, the Orioles’ fourth-best prospect per Baseball America, was the highlight of the return in last summer’s Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Rylan Bannon, the other minor league position player in the trade, has already advanced to Triple-A Norfolk.
After the trade, Diaz immediately became the Orioles’ top prospect, but he has since been surpassed by their past three first-round picks. It didn’t help that he missed parts of this season with a pair of upper-leg injuries, including one that sidelined him for most of August. His rehab games marked the only times he played for an affiliate other than Bowie.
“For me, it was a really good season, but I had the couple injuries, so that was the bad part of the season,” Diaz said through interpreter José Corrales. “But the time I was playing, I felt it was a really good season for me, so I gotta keep working and trying to stay healthy most of the time for next year.
“I was very consistent when I was healthy. I feel like I got a lot better with my bat, my approach, everything. I feel like I just got to work a little more in my preparation and doing rehab, all the preparation before the game to avoid any injuries.”
He rejoined the Baysox for the final week of the regular season, hitting .308/.379/.538 with three multi-hit contests among the season’s final four games, then hit a game-tying home run in Wednesday’s Game 1 against Harrisburg. In that way, he continued where he left off before suffering a quadriceps injury July 31.
Starting June 12, when changes he and Bowie hitting coach Keith Bodie made with his stance and approach began to take effect, to the end of July, Diaz hit .287/.357/.555 with nine homers. Twenty-five of his 47 hits in that span went for extra bases.
“He’s a dynamic player,” Britton said. “What he brings offensively, I think in the short period that he was here, he was leading the team in RBIs and doubles. He’s an exciting player. He can carry you if he gets hot.
“He’s not a complete player yet. I’d like to see him a full season with his legs underneath him and be 100% healthy.”
More comfortable in the organization, Diaz is showing signs of the player he was in the Dodgers’ system, where he hit .314/.428/.477 with more walks than strikeouts in 2018 before the trade. The Orioles are waiting for McKenna, their fourth-round pick in 2015 and No. 14 prospect, to also produce as he did early last season.
McKenna stood out with High-A Frederick in 2018, hitting .377/.467/.556, and earned a midseason promotion to Bowie. But even with a successful stint in the Arizona Fall League in the offseason, McKenna is hitting .234 for the Baysox since he got moved up.
“You look at the batting average, and you kinda think, ‘Oh, he had a tough year,’ but if you dive deep into the stats, he was in the top 10 in the league in doubles, total bases, extra-base hits, stolen bases,” Britton said. “For a young player to put together that year — I know the average wasn’t there where he liked it, but he had an OK year.”
He especially showed flashes in the middle of the season, with a .284 average, .835 OPS and 13 steals in 53 games from May 25 to July 22. But McKenna followed that stretch of success with 22 hitless at-bats over the next six games, posting a .179 average in his 39 games of the regular season.
“I think a lot of the times, either stuff didn’t go your way the first couple months, or you’re hitting balls right at somebody, or you’re getting calls that are tough your way," McKenna said. "I think just staying [with] that confidence and never doubting yourself as a player and as a hitter, going up there with a gameplan every day is crucial. Sometimes, that happens.
"Going well, you find your grooves. Good hitters will maximize those times that you’re feeling good and executing on pitches that you get in the zone. I think that’s what I was doing, and I hope to continue that as much as I can.”
A day after he reached four times in Bowie’s Game 1 victory and showed the kind of threat he could be at the top of the order, McKenna became Bowie’s first base runner with a one-out walk in the fourth. But thinking Anderson Feliz had walked, McKenna began trotting toward second when Feliz took what was only a third ball and was easily caught between bases.
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“Those are things that you’ve got to stay engaged in the game,” Britton said. “You can’t lose focus in moments like that. Those are things that we preach in spring training. He’s heard the same things for years. At some point, man, you’ve got to retain the information and be able to slow the game down, especially in big games like that.”
Feliz walked on the next pitch, and Carlos Perez walked, too. Diaz struck out to end the threat.
When McKenna came up the next time, he doubled off the right-field wall for Bowie’s first hit. He came around to score on Perez’s three-run home run. Representing the tying run, Diaz hit a grounder to short for the inning’s final out.
McKenna hit a similarly placed ball leading off the 11th, managing to beat out an infield single. After a sacrifice bunt and intentional walk, Diaz stepped up with a chance to give the Baysox a 2-0 series lead. But his line-drive double play was the last time any Bowie batter put a ball in play.
The series continued Friday, with the Baysox needing to win two of three games on the road to advance to the Eastern League Championship Series. Regardless of the result, Diaz and McKenna sensed progress in their year with Bowie.
“I felt really good because I was consistent with whatever I was doing,” Diaz said. “I wasn’t moving around the whole time. I was doing the same preparation, the same exercises with the coaches. I feel like that helped me a lot to get better.”
Said McKenna: “Every year, you take one day at a time and you try to learn everything from what you had last year and then apply it to years forward, so I’m developing here in the minors leagues just to hopefully one day and hopefully soon contribute to the Orioles organization in the big leagues.”