Shortstop J.J. Hardy appears close to returning to the Orioles lineup after missing six weeks with a broken bone in his left foot, but he's not feeling any pressure to rush back to stabilize the club's recently inconsistent infield defense.
In fact, he said he thinks the team is doing just fine without him.
"I haven't been able to watch the games," Hardy said, as he prepared to play his first injury rehabilitation game for the Double-A Bowie Baysox on Tuesday night. "I've just been checking box scores every 30 minutes down in Florida and it just seems like they're winning. I mean, shoot, they're in first place, so it's good."
It's not quite that simple, of course. The Orioles clearly miss their three-time Gold Glove shortstop, even if Manny Machado might someday take over the position full-time and one day become one of the best players ever at that position.
The Orioles have gained a reputation for consistently stingy defense during the Buck Showalter era, and Hardy has been a big part of that. The Orioles defense set a record for fewest errors in a season in 2013 and have ranked first in the American League in fielding percentage each of the past three seasons. Going into Tuesday night's series opener against the Boston Red Sox, they ranked 20th in the major leagues in that department.
Hardy might be too humble to attribute that to his absence at the most pivotal position on the infield, but the numbers don't lie. The Orioles committed just 11 errors in their first 24 games this season — before he fouled that ball off his foot — and have committed 26 errors in the 38 games through Sunday.
Last year, when he was sidelined for the first 25 games of the season, the Orioles got off to an uncharacteristically rocky start on defense, committing 17 errors before settling down to average one every 2.3 games the rest of the way.
It seems like everybody knows what a positive influence Hardy has on the entire defense … except Hardy.
"Honestly, I'm just trying to go out there and make every play I'm supposed to make," he said. "I guess [infield coach Bobby Dickerson] sees it. Bobby always tells me the stuff I do and I'm like, 'Honestly, I'm not thinking about it. I'm just trying to be in the right spot and the guys are in the right spot next to me.' I don't know what to attribute that to."
We'll find out soon enough if that trend holds. Hardy has been working his way back at the Orioles' spring training facility in Sarasota, Fla., and has reached the point where he is pain-free in the area where he fractured that bone in his left foot. Now, he has to prove to himself that he can play at full speed before returning to the major league lineup, and he's still getting his feet under him after spending a month in a walking boot.
Hardy looked fine in his first game action in six weeks. He handled a routine grounder routinely in the top of the first inning and slapped an opposite-field single in his first at-bat. He would go on to ground out his second time up and reach base on a looping single to left in his final trip to the plate. He was replaced at short by Adrian Marin after the sixth.
He predicted before the game that he would stay long enough to hit three times and then shut it down to make sure he’s ready to go again on Wednesday and Thursday nights.
"Hopefully in a perfect world, things go well and my foot, I'm not thinking about it at all and I feel like I'm 100 percent," he said. "I'll let everyone know that I feel 100 percent and they can say, 'We want you back,' or 'Why don't you go do a little bit more?' We'll figure that out over the next three days."
If that sounds like it's within the realm of possibility that he could show up at shortstop Friday night at Oriole Park, it is. But he's not ready to make any bold predictions.
"I don't know if that's getting ahead of ourselves or not, because it has been six weeks of not playing," Hardy said. "We'll just see how these three games go before we start getting ahead of ourselves."
Whether he returns this weekend or two weeks from now, Hardy said he isn't worried about the Orioles defense. He's confident in the players who have stepped in to fill the void he left and thinks the club will soon be back near the top of the defensive rankings where it belongs.
"Fielding is streaky kind of like hitting," Hardy said. "When you get into fielding slumps, sometimes they're harder to get out of than hitting slumps. Obviously, you have to get out of them. You can't keep making a bunch of errors."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.