Hays gives O's taste of what they've missed

June 12th, 2021

There are times, when he’s on the baseball field, when it looks like there is nothing cannot do. Then there are times he’s simply not on the field, sidelined by various injuries for long stretches both as a prospect and during his brief big league career. How exactly to limit the latter and make the former more frequent is a conundrum neither Hays nor the Orioles have figured out. But it’s clear they are better with him healthy, active and in their outfield.

The latest example came Friday night at Tropicana Field, where Hays returned from the injured list and made a sizable impact despite going hitless in the Orioles’ 4-2 loss to the Rays. Using his arm to deny one runner an extra base and erase another from the bases entirely, Hays’ defense stood out on a night the Orioles received an inefficient Keegan Akin start and did little offensively against Ryan Yarbrough and three Rays relievers. The loss was the Orioles’ 13th consecutive road defeat, tying the all-time team record.

“It feels good to have such good defense behind you,” Akin said. “Those plays can get you out of innings quicker.”

Consider first: Hays’ exceptional play on Mike Zunino’s long drive to left in the third, which he played expertly off the wall and then made a strong throw to hold Zunino to a single. An inning later, Hays cut Mike Brosseau’s single off in the left-center-field gap and fired a one-hop throw to nab Brosseau at second. Both helped limit the damage during innings Tampa Bay rallied off Akin, who allowed three runs in four innings in his first loss of the season.

Both throws also registered at least 88 mph, per Statcast, and were customarily accurate.

“Austin brings us a lot both offensively and defensively, with his run tool and power, while playing great defense,” manager Brandon Hyde said.

The defensive ability has long been obvious at the big league level with Hays, who returned to the Majors for good down the stretch in 2019 with a series of highlight-reel catches in center field. So, too, has the injury history. Limited by calf, ankle and shoulder ailments in the Minors, Hays would’ve been in the big leagues well before September 2019 had he not been slowed by several injuries. He then lost a month in 2020 after breaking a rib crashing into the center-field wall at Citizens Bank Park, and he has already been sidelined twice this season due to hamstring strains.

In the meantime, he has been productive: He's hitting .271 with 13 home runs, four steals and a .780 OPS across 87 big league games since 2019, with positive defensive metrics. Hyde rejected the characterization of Hays as injury-prone when asked Friday.

“He’s still really young, and I’m not ready to put that label on him,” Hyde said. “He’s still got a long future ahead of him in this game. He’s got Major League ability and had some tough breaks. I think it’s going to turn for him.”

To that end, Hays said he has mapped out the rest of the year with the Orioles’ training staff with an eye toward navigating his tendency for soft-tissue strains, and toward remaining healthy long term. Doing so would be a boon, both for the Orioles and Hays’ career. It feels far away now with Cedric Mullins playing an All-Star-caliber center field, but Hays was in the running for that job as recently as this spring. Mullins was back in the Minors when Hays dazzled in ‘19, inspiring talk of him being the O’s center fielder of the future.

Now it’s Mullins who's garnering that buzz, less than two years later. When healthy, Hays plays every day in left, with Anthony Santander in right, giving the Orioles one of the most underrated defensive outfields in baseball. But it’s a unit that has hardly played together, due to Hays and Santander finding themselves in the trainer’s room often.

“I feel like I always show up for this team, anytime that I am on the field, even if I'm not 100 percent or if I'm dealing with nagging stuff -- if I can be out there, I'm out there. So yeah, it's very frustrating,” Hays said. “There are some things I can do on a daily basis to combat the injuries I’ve had so far and reset my body to a healthy standpoint. Right now, I’m just trying to maintain that for the rest of the season."