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Orioles' Stevie Wilkerson riding confident spell at plate through trial run in center field

When Stevie Wilkerson got to Double-A Bowie in 2017, he was introduced to the utility concept that was advertised as exactly what it proved to be — a chance to give him as many positions to contribute and make it to the majors at as possible.

Nowhere on that list, however, was center field, where Wilkerson started for the fourth straight game Tuesday. It's a position that wasn't in his repertoire before this year, but has allowed him to play regularly since he rejoined the Orioles late last month, a stretch in which he's enjoyed plenty of success at the plate.

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Wilkerson, a switch-hitter, has at least one hit in his past nine starts, including two in Monday night's 4-1 win over the Boston Red Sox to raise his batting average to .300 in 40 plate appearances. All 12 of his hits have come from the left side of the plate against right-handed pitching, and while he's struck out 12 times for a 30% strikeout rate without a walk, Wilkerson feels like his approach is what's leading to his hot spell.

For Orioles infielder Jonathan Villar, hot stretches like the one he's in now tantalize to the point that it's fair to wonder why he's not consistent.

"I think I'm probably a little sharper left-handed than right-handed right now, and just getting my name in the lineup whenever is a good opportunity," Wilkerson said. "I've gotten a good amount of playing time here as of late, and it's been fun.

"I think I've just been doing a good job of laying off pitches in the dirt, and I've still been getting into some two-strike counts, but I think I've done a better job of putting the balls in play in those two-strike counts and some of those have turned into hits."

That's a far cry from his everyday spell at the end of 2018, when Wilkerson had four hits over the last eight games. But after a difficult spring in which he was designated for assignment off the major league roster, he came back even more versatile when the Orioles sent Cedric Mullins down to the minors in late April.

Manager Brandon Hyde said he'll continue to run Wilkerson out in center field, and Joey Rickard will likely rejoin the fold more against left-handed pitching. But Wilkerson is more than holding his own in center field, a position that even an athlete like him never played until recently.

He said the batting practice repetitions he's had have helped, and he and first base coach Arnie Beyeler have worked daily on his first step and the way he breaks for the ball.

Manny Machado is appealing a one-game suspension after he made contact with a home plate umpire, according to MLB.

"I think keeping it simple is best," Wilkerson said. "Your job out there is to catch the ball, hit the cut-off man, and know the situation. If you can keep it simple and not overcomplicate things and make it more difficult on yourself...

"The way things are with the balls and stuff, right when I see them go up in the air, it's almost like every ball almost makes it to the fence. My first reaction is to go back, cover that, and then come in on it rather than stay in and have to jet back afterward and make a more difficult play.”

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Hyde sees something simpler driving Wilkerson's success, citing the calmness and confidence of Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant, his former charges with the Chicago Cubs, in what it takes to do what Wilkerson has.

"To have Stevie being in that role right now is fantastic — it's only going to benefit him and his career to be able to play multiple spots on the field," Hyde said. "If you can switch-hit in the big leagues, run, and play the outfield and the infield, you could have a really, really nice career. And Stevie's got a lot of confidence. I love the fact that I'm throwing him out there and he's taking it head-on. I'd love to see him do well."

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