Even on the sleepiest days of the Grapefruit League calendar, like the temperate one that brought out long sleeves for the Orioles' midweek trip to Port Charlotte to face the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday, the hottest competition in camp burns on.
Each of the Orioles’ three starting outfielders provided big swings in a 9-6 win over the Rays, with home runs by Anthony Santander and Cedric Mullins in the fifth inning setting the stage for a three-run double by Yusniel Diaz in the eighth that put them ahead for good.
With each passing day, it seems the Orioles' cadre of young outfielders does something to make an impression, and manager Brandon Hyde is surely taking notice.
“I think that's great,” Hyde said. “That's what we want.”
Santander, who is in the midst of another strong spring, homered for the second time in four days to open the scoring for the Orioles, who were initially stymied by starter Charlie Morton and then Yonny Chirinos.
But Chirinos served up the home run to Santander, allowed an infield single to Rule 5 shortstop Drew Jackson, then gave up Mullins' first home run of the spring. While the Orioles’ presumptive leadoff hitter and center fielder hasn't dominated this spring, he's been a constant factor on the bases and in the field to help solidify his case for each of those jobs.
Diaz was hitless in his first three trips before pulling a double down the left-field line off the glove of Rays third baseman Tristan Gray after the Orioles loaded the bases off reliever Emilio Pagán, bringing his spring average to .385. His 10 hits are most on the team in Grapefruit League play. One of the three runs scored on Diaz’s double was by DJ Stewart, another outfield contender who came off the bench to draw a tough walk and extend the inning for the Orioles.
Hyde said Santander’s recent efforts to get behind the ball and keep his bat in the zone paid dividends on the home run, while Diaz’s knack for knocks with runners on has been evident all spring.
“He's going to give you some aggressive swings, and he's looking to do damage at the plate,” Hyde said of Diaz. “We're facing some really good arms. Those are some of Tampa's guys, and I thought that I've been impressed with his plate discipline, his strike-zone discipline. He rarely chases outside the zone. When he gets a pitch to hit, he takes a really aggressive swing at it, and he's so strong. It looks like he just loves being in these RBI situations. He just loves to play. Impressive.”
Even Mike Yastrzemski, who was sent to minor league camp Sunday, got in on the action with a ninth-inning home run as he made his return to the major league mix as an extra player. The only run not to originate from an outfielder’s bat was an RBI single by infielder Jack Reinheimer in the eighth.
Back in Sarasota, one of the breakout players of spring, Austin Hays, and the steady Joey Rickard were biding their time to make an impact themselves. Nonroster invitee Eric Young Jr. has also performed as required this spring. It makes for a complicated decision for Hyde and executive vice president Mike Elias, albeit one that they're happy to have be because of the strong play of the candidates this spring.
Business time for Means
Left-hander John Means allowed just one bloop hit and struck out five against two walks in three scoreless innings, giving him two scoreless starts in a row, but felt those statistics flattered Wednesday.
"I think I probably felt a little better last outing," Means said. "This outing was kind of one of those where you see the box score, you see the strikeouts and think it was a good outing. I just didn't really have as much feel for my curveball, didn't really dump that in for a strike. But I still felt good. I still feel strong."
Means allowed three runs without finishing his assigned inning in his first appearance of the spring, but has rebounded well to put himself in the mix to make the major league club along with a host of other starting candidates. He's trying to treat it like a regular spring, where he prepares for the season without putting pressure on himself, no matter the circumstances.
"I try not to think about it," Means said. "Spring training is used to kind of get warmed up for the season, and that's how I'm taking it, just getting warmed up, getting the innings, getting the stamina up. I'm not trying to think about it too much."
Said Hyde: “I thought John Means threw the ball really well. Nice mix of pitches, thought he was unpredictable, I liked his off-speed stuff. He kept hitters off balance. He did a great job for three innings.”
Relievers in gear
While nonroster reliever Bo Schultz allowed three runs in the fourth inning and Luis Ortiz served up two runs in the fifth, the relievers that followed pitched well for the Orioles.
Tanner Scott had his second straight 1-2-3 inning and third straight scoreless outing after struggling in his spring debut, while fellow left-hander Paul Fry worked around a pair of hits for a scoreless seventh. Cody Carroll had a third scoreless inning in four appearances while striking out two before handing off to Pedro Araujo in the ninth, who allowed an unearned run on a throwing error by catcher Martin Cervenka.