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Orioles reset: Another hot start to savor, and this one’s going according to plan | ANALYSIS

BOSTON — Maybe they’re the horse that simply reacts the fastest as the starting gate opens but can’t keep up once the rest of the field hits its strides. Perhaps these Orioles are simply going to blow up their rebuilding schedule and not fall back to earth after a third straight season-opening series win against a division rival.

This weekend’s three wins over the Boston Red Sox aren’t to be scoffed at either way. Looking back at the team’s evolution, and how they regarded their improbable winning weekends in each case, charts a trajectory of progress that’s to be savored.

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When the Orioles went into the Bronx and stole two of three from the New York Yankees after getting thumped on Opening Day in 2019, part of a 4-2 start that represented the high-water mark of the season, everything was new.

After an injury adjustment to their rotation forced them into a bullpen game on the second day of the season, they used every pitcher they could and worked around 22 walks in three games, managing to win the series despite having a lineup full of waiver claims — some of whom had only just arrived.

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Manager Brandon Hyde and starter John Means got tossed in laundry carts and covered with beer and condiments for their first victories. The Orioles weren’t going to win much, but they were going to enjoy it when they did — and stay the course for how to set the stage for a winning team years down the road.

“I just think this is how you grow as a team, honestly,” Hyde said at the time. “Playing games like this, playing series in this environment against really good clubs, and to have guys step up. When somebody gets into trouble, have the next guy come in and help out.”

That 108-loss season proved to be a miserable one. The next guy who came in often did not help out, though there were some building blocks solidified, including Means, Trey Mancini and Anthony Santander.

Means was going to start Opening Day in Boston last July, but arm soreness again shuffled the Orioles’ plans and forced them to start Tommy Milone instead. They lost the opener, but won the next two behind Alex Cobb and Wade LeBlanc, again bucking conventional wisdom to win their first series.

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That weekend was driven by the players Hyde hoped would be taking the next step, including Santander, Rio Ruiz and Austin Hays. It was the expected growth from the experience the team gave its younger players the year before.

Hyde said then: “I hope that last year’s experience, positive and negative, because there were some positive experiences too, I hope they learn from those and continue to improve.”

What’s striking about what the Orioles did in Boston this weekend, though, was how by-the-books it was. Their shortest start was 4 ⅔ innings by Matt Harvey, with quality starts from Means and Bruce Zimmermann around it meaning the pitching wasn’t stretched thin. They played sound defense, even with Ruiz making his first career starts at second base. They didn’t hit any home runs but hit .325 with runners in scoring position.

Everything, simply, went according to plan. They came away with a sweep to show for it.

How often the Orioles can follow their plan will determine whether this is the season they drag their record to respectability. Nights when Hyde doesn’t have relievers he can rely on, or when the swing-and-miss in the heart of the lineup overwhelms the positives, or when they lapse a bit on defense won’t lead to series like this.

It’s telling, though, that Hyde’s point of reference for what the team is trying to build for has gotten more specific.

“It’s really satisfying to win close, well-pitched ball games,” he said Sunday. “And being able to take advantage of some opportunities, having good at-bats, up and down the order, good defense in important times — that’s how you win in this league. That’s how you win late in the year, that’s how you win in the postseason, by pitching, playing solid defensively and being able to take advantage of opportunities and string good at-bats together. For the most part, we’ve done that for a couple days.”

What’s next?

This week’s trip to New York for a three-game series before the home opener against the Red Sox on Thursday could provide the Orioles with an interesting exercise, albeit one Cedric Mullins probably made moot this weekend.

Data drives everything the Orioles do, but there’s only spring training data and his three hits in three regular-season at-bats in terms of information on how Mullins, formerly a switch hitter, fares against left-handed pitching as a left-handed batter.

But how does one use data to fill out the best lineup on a daily basis without any? Monday’s game against Yankees left-hander Jordan Montgomery could have been an occasion to find out before a few circumstances intervened. First, Mullins had a historic five-hit day Sunday and has nine hits in 13 at-bats this season, so sitting him for any reason would be hard to imagine. Second, the center field alternative in Hays left Sunday’s game with hamstring soreness.

That means the Orioles’ methods of blending what numbers they have and the eye test to determine whether Mullins should play against a lefty might be moot, at least for now. It’s something the team has thought about, though. Monday just might not be the time they’re forced to show their hand on their calculations.

What was good?

Mancini would have chosen a winning weekend over everything else as he made his return to regular-season action after missing 2020 while battling stage 3 colon cancer, but the recognition he received from fans and rivals alike showed no signs of letting up in Boston.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora said that Mancini should be given the Comeback Player of the Year Award whether he hits .330 or .180.

“I know there’s other guys who are going to come back from injuries but to come back from this is amazing, and he did an outstanding job in spring training getting ready,” Cora said. “You can see the swings. He looks like he’s the same guy as two years ago.”

Hyde said Mancini already had his vote, though that was certainly never in question.

“I can’t even imagine what he’s gone through, and he’s had a lot of attention on him the last — this spring training and up through the season so far,” Hyde said. “And he has handled it like a pro, and so mature. He’s just so professional and so understanding and appreciative, and he walks around like that. He’s appreciative of being here, he gives his time to others, he’s just a class act.”

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It proved to be a good week at the plate, as well. Mancini had a hit in each game, punctuated by a two-run double in Sunday’s seven-run third inning.

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What wasn’t?

It wasn’t tempting fate, necessarily, but there was something cruel in what was otherwise a dream weekend for the Orioles to potentially lose Hays to hamstring discomfort after so much was made of his health allowing him to be the best version of himself on the field this spring.

“The main thing is my body feels really healthy,” Hays said as spring training concluded. “I’m finally ready to play 162 this year, so I’m really looking forward to getting that started.”

The frustration he displayed upon leaving is fitting considering that mentality. Hays was one of the top prospects in baseball after shooting to the majors in his first full minor league season in 2017, and then a variety of issues kept him from being able to be healthy and on the field consistently since.

He ended 2019 as the Orioles’ everyday center fielder and played well, but a rib fracture in 2020 kept him from reprising that role or being his best self for most of the season.

Losing him for any meaningful amount of time would certainly hamper a team whose outfield was meant to be a strength this year. They could add Ryan McKenna as cover in center field from the taxi squad, and the return of DJ Stewart — who has been dealing with a hamstring injury of his own — could be in play as well.

On the farm

A month from Sunday, minor league games will begin at the Orioles’ four affiliates: Triple-A Norfolk, Double-A Bowie, High-A Aberdeen and Low-A Delmarva. Until then, the Triple-A team is at Bowie staying sharp as major league depth while the rest of the group is split between the Orioles’ two Sarasota, Florida, sites to prepare for their season.

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