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Orioles reset: Two years after his free-fall from majors, Cedric Mullins’ ‘incredible’ progress on display

Two years ago Sunday, Cedric Mullins’ collapse out of the majors was nearing free-fall status. He was 0-for-5 in a matinee loss to Oakland, and halfway through a month that began with him as the Orioles’ Opening Day center fielder, he found himself back in the minors.

A comeback that began in 2020 has been even more impressive in the first week-plus of the season. And in an Orioles campaign that has gone sideways in a hurry, his continued success is one of the few bright spots.

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“He’s playing really well so far,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I’m just so happy for him. I didn’t see him play in ’18, just highlight stuff, but I didn’t see him play. And then in ’19, he got off to the start that he got off to, I just didn’t know what kind of player he was.

“He was really struggling, and you can see the confidence was way down, and just to see the progression from there has been incredible.”

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Mullins’ confidence in himself wasn’t the only thing that cratered; as he went down two levels to Double-A Bowie and tried to regain whatever made him a well-regarded prospect years earlier, he was essentially off the Orioles’ radar. Even as he had a good second half in the minors and was on the roster for a team that was low on impact outfielders, Hyde still acted bemused that summer at the mention of Mullins returning as a September call-up.

He made the team for the July opener in 2020 and endured another slow start to the season, but his return in mid-August after a stint at the Bowie camp brought back the best version of himself. He hit .291 with a .769 OPS from that point on, and his decision to ditch switch-hitting in the offseason has his 2021 going even better.

Mullins has hits in all nine Orioles games this season, and with his fourth multi-hit game of the season Sunday is batting .459 with a 1.188 OPS — far and away the best output by anyone on the Orioles this season.

That success is amplified by his strong start against left-handed pitching, an area where there’s little precedent considering he hadn’t hit left-handed against a lefty since high school. So far, he’s more than holding his own.

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Austin Hays’ hamstring injury, along with Mullins’ hot start, meant the Orioles had little choice but to keep him in the lineup against lefty starters Jordan Montgomery and Eduardo Rodríguez last week. But considering lefties across baseball last year hit .223 with a .670 OPS against same-side pitching, Mullins having six hits and a walk in 12 plate appearances against lefties is quite a start.

For his part, he never questioned that he’d be able to do it.

“I didn’t necessarily expect to have that much of a struggle,” Mullins said. “I know how much work I’ve put in during the offseason to get adjusted to seeing left-handed pitching. It was just a matter of me continuing to be aggressive on balls in the zone and continuing to see the ball well out of hand.”

Said Hyde: “I am so impressed with his left-on-left, how hard that is to do — decide to go just hit left-handed in the offseason, work on it, have a spring training where you have some at-bats, not a ton, but we tried to give him as many at-bats as we could against left-handed pitching. But to stand in the way he is against these left-handed starters and bullpen guys … It’s been really good.”

Defensively, Mullins has caught all but one ball hit in his direction — that a difficult one that bounced off the wall Saturday. Hyde noted that he’s “made so many really good catches look extremely easy so far,” and is playing hard both defensively and on the bases.

“I just have been really impressed with his professionalism, of how he handled things two years ago, what he is today, and just how he’s playing the game aggressively — on the bases, defensively,” Hyde said. “I just hope he keeps it going. This guy has got a lot of ability.”

What’s to come?

A reduced 60-game regional schedule in 2020 meant the Orioles played only their own division and the National League East last summer, so the last team outside that group of nine they played was the Seattle Mariners at Camden Yards from Sept. 20-22, 2019.

Those Mariners are back this week for a four-game series, followed by a road trip that brings the Orioles into what should be an interesting environment in Arlington, Texas. There, the Rangers are welcoming a full stadium of fans into the ballpark, and there’s been criticism of how safe fans are being in terms of wearing masks in that environment.

From a baseball standpoint, Hyde said the Orioles will have to rely on their advance scouting staff for information on the actual opponents.

“It is a challenge, and the same for them against us, too,” Hyde said. “It makes it fun, though. It makes it fun seeing somebody else.”

What was good?

The Orioles’ pitching staff isn’t lacking arms this year at 14-men strong, but reliable ones are few and far between at the moment. That makes Tanner Scott’s start to the season all the more valuable.

Scott, the hard-throwing 26-year-old lefty reliever, is one of the few Orioles pitchers whose line hasn’t been blemished in the first week of the season. He walked two in a scoreless debut on Opening Day in Boston and added two scoreless appearances this week to give him five strikeouts against two walks with one hit allowed in 3 ⅓ shutout innings.

It’s basically been John Means and Bruce Zimmermann holding down the rotation, and Scott, Adam Plutko and César Valdez as reliable relievers for Hyde so far this year.

They’ll be looking for some help on that front as the season rolls on, but a lights-out Scott will at least make things a little easier when the Orioles are protecting leads.

The Orioles' Maikel Franco (3) taps Freddy Galvis on the helmet after Galvis drove in a run against the Red Sox during the eighth inning Saturday in Baltimore.
The Orioles' Maikel Franco (3) taps Freddy Galvis on the helmet after Galvis drove in a run against the Red Sox during the eighth inning Saturday in Baltimore. (Julio Cortez/AP)

What wasn’t?

Though he ended it well, with a hit late in Saturday’s game to give the Orioles a temporary lead and a single and a walk Sunday, it was an auspicious start to the year for new Orioles shortstop Freddy Galvis.

He entered 2021 with a 20.2% career strikeout rate and ended the week at 38.2% this season with 13 strikeouts in 34 plate appearances. Through eight games, he’s batting .129 with a .343 OPS.

Ahead of Sunday’s game, Hyde hoped an under-control swing that led to a hit Saturday night would carry over and lessen his climbing strikeout rate. Until then, he saw a player who wasn’t showing a consistent approach at the plate — a pervasive problem on a team that reached 100 strikeouts eight games into the season.

“I think like the majority of our hitters right now, we’re expanding and we’re trying to really drive the ball instead of just letting the at-bat happen and just being short to the ball, shrinking our strike zone a little bit,” Hyde said. “Guys that are struggling with command, not helping them out—just a little bit of a funk that way. I think that once we kind of get a few guys start get hot a little bit, start to walk, I think we need to walk. … We’ve just got to let the game come to us offensively instead of trying to do too much.”

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Galvis left Sunday’s game after colliding with Red Sox pitcher Nick Pivetta at home plate while trying to score on a wild pitch. Hyde said Galvis would be reevaluated Monday following “a little blow to his knee and his ankle.”

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On the farm

This month’s COVID-19 issues with the Washington Nationals impacted the Orioles’ farmhands as they try to break the monotony of being back at the Bowie camp.

Outfielder DJ Stewart, who spent a little over a week rehabilitating his hamstring strain there, said upon his activation Friday that the planned games against the Nationals’ minor leaguers who were based in Fredericksburg, Virginia, didn’t happen this week.

The Nationals had to make wholesale changes to their roster after their first three games of the season were postponed because of virus concerns on their roster, bringing up several players who were previously slated to be at their Triple-A camp.

So, the Orioles’ Triple-A group has had only themselves to compete against for the last week or so since coming north. Stewart said some days with the wet weather, they didn’t even risk putting fielders out to replicate games.

May 4, when minor league games begin, can’t come soon enough.

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