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Orioles

Schmuck: Orioles' J.J. Hardy is not one to rest on his laurels, but days off have been beneficial

Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy had a multihit game Monday night, which wasn't exactly a random event.

Just about every time manager Buck Showalter has given Hardy a well-deserved day off over the past month or so, Hardy has returned the favor by delivering a big hit, a big home run or just an all-around big game.

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"I don't know if he feels better physically or that's his way of thanking me," Showalter joked Tuesday.

It's no joke. Hardy is going to turn 35 later this season and every day he can rest his mind and body over the course of the season is much appreciated, even though he would never think to ask his manager for a day off.

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"I don't know what the trend is there, but I can tell you mentally and physically — I think more mentally than anything — I just feel better," Hardy said. "So does it help me, I think so, especially at this time in my career."

That is no easy thing for a major league ballplayer to acknowledge, but Hardy is known as one of those guys who is honest with himself and with everybody else. He knows the clock never stops ticking and — believe this — the Orioles also are well aware that they might be reaching a crossroads at the shortstop position. It is a source of some apprehension with Hardy playing out the final guaranteed year of his contract with no chance of vesting an expensive option to remain through the 2018 season.

There is no obvious replacement moving up through the minor league system, and the club has cooled on the idea of moving superstar Manny Machado off third base, so it's pretty much in everybody's interest for Hardy to come back next year and help maintain the stability of one of the game's best defensive infields.

The team could choose to pick up that $14 million option or figure out some other way to keep him, but the possibility exists that this will be his final year as an Oriole.

"I try not to think about that," Showalter said. "J.J.'s has been a huge part of things here, because of his consistency and with [second baseman] Jon [Schoop] and Manny's development. He contributes every day here in some form or fashion."

Hardy tries not to think about it, too, but he's his own worst critic and he isn't happy with his all-around performance as this season passes the quarter pole. He entered Tuesday night's game batting just .203 and says quite bluntly that he has not lived up to his personal expectations either at the plate or in the field.

"I feel like defense is ticking me off more than anything," Hardy said. "I feel like I've been very, very below average defensively, and that wears on me more. If I go 0-for-4, I go 0-for-4, but if I make an error, I don't sleep at night. I think that has led to me being mentally tired and grinding through this first quarter of the season."

Nobody else is complaining. He hasn't hit for a high average, but he has delivered some big hits, especially after the more frequent days off he has gotten this year. In the five games that fit that description over the past five weeks, he has batted .320 with six runs, eight hits, a home run and five RBIs. His season total of 15 RBIs in 148 at-bats is fairly consistent with his career run-production rate.

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"I will never, never complain if he gives me a day off, and I'll never go ask him for a day," Hardy said. "I just can't do it."

Showalter entered the season fully intending to give all his everyday players more time off. He felt like his team's improved position depth this year would allow him to do that. There have been some setbacks — including the recent loss of utility man Ryan Flaherty to a shoulder injury — that could make it an even bigger challenge to give Hardy more rest.

Though Hardy is not a guy who dwells on his contract situation, he said Tuesday that is just one of the reasons he burns to play better than he has so far.

"Obviously, I want to play as good as I can and live up to my [current] contract," he said. "But it's like, I have expectations for myself that I want to live up to and I'm not letting my mind tell me I'm getting older so that maybe it's going to be harder to do that. I won't do that. I still am going to fight and grind as much as I can and at the end of the year we'll see where we're at.

"In a perfect world, I'd turn it around from what I've been doing the first quarter of the season and finish strong and leave it up to the Orioles and see what they think."

His manager already knows what to think.

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"You might want to a good look at him and appreciate him, because you won't see many guys as consistent as him," Showalter said. "He reminds me of some of the great shortstops that have been here. You can count on him."

As for that 2018 contract option, Showalter didn't tiptoe around the subject.

"I'm hoping it's a no-brainer," he said.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.


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