Cedric Mullins zeroed in on the fastball sizzling out of Justin Wilson's left hand, tracking it to the heart of the strike zone, then he lifted his front leg, kept his right shoulder closed and swung. Following through with both hands on the bat, Mullins hopped out of the left-hander's batters box, ambling up the first-base line like he had served Wilson's pitch on a line into center field. And he had, only when it landed 418 feet over the center-field wall, the speedy Mullins could jog.
The seventh-inning solo homer iced the Orioles' 4-2 win over the Yankees at Oriole Park on Monday, when Mullins enjoyed his best all-around effort in what's already been a resilient, validating, standout 2021 season. Connecting for two homers and a double, Mullins bookended Baltimore's support of Matt Harvey, who logged six innings of one-run ball to outpitch Deivi García. Austin Hays' important eighth-inning assist nabbed Aaron Judge at third to help the O's hang on for their most complete team victory of the season and push the Yankees into sole possession of last place in the American League East.
The main star was Mullins, who achieved his first career Eutaw Street homer and his first multihomer game, in addition to leapfrogging back into the Major League in hits. He's compiled 31 through 22 games, ranking fifth among AL hitters in average (.365), seventh in on-base percentage (.419) and ninth in slugging (.576). In short, Mullins is performing like one of baseball's best players, precisely two years after a disastrous 6-for-64 start to the 2019 season seemed to put his career in jeopardy.
"I've had some early success, and it's just a matter of continuing to put the work in that I have been putting in," Mullins said. "I'm putting my best swing out on the field, so it's just a matter of staying consistent."
After his 2019 slump, Mullins was demoted and finished the year in Double-A, passed by several other outfielders on the O's organizational depth chart. Two years later, he's the centerpiece of the big league outfield that's grown into the jewel of their rebuild, starring on both sides of the ball alongside Hays (two home runs Sunday), now-injured Anthony Santander and current three-hole hitter DJ Stewart. Monday also provided a glimpse into the unit's defensive impact, with Mullins scaling the right-center-field wall to rob Judge in the fourth and Hays' rocket assist in the eighth.
"That was a game-saving play," manager Brandon Hyde said. "Austin Hays is a plus, plus arm, and it's extremely accurate. He looks for plays like that. He wants to throw. The ball took him to the line, and that's not easy to then plant and make a strong throw to third base. And he put it right on the money."
The result was the type of pitching-and-defense-rooted victory that has been scant during the Orioles' rebuild, especially against the Yankees. But that's beginning to change, as some of their talented young players not only arrive, but find their footing at the big league level and improve. Harvey doesn't fall into that category despite his somewhat vintage performance Monday, striking out five and retiring 11 straight at one point. But Mullins, Hays and others do.
Consider Mullins' 105.6 mph leadoff homer off García in the first, at that point the hardest-hit dinger of his career. That mark stood for about six innings, until his 106 mph shot off Wilson broke it; three of Mullins' four hardest-hit homers have come this year.
"To go left-on-left off Justin Wilson -- who I know very well -- you don't see that very often," Hyde said. "Not only to homer, but to go dead center shows you the power Cedric has. All year I've been impressed with him left-on-left. … To do what he's doing, I don't have the words for it."
Mullins' second homer was exactly the kind of thing Wilson, who's surrendered just 11 homers in 639 career plate appearances against lefties, built a 10-year career around being able to neutralize. He wouldn't have even had the chance Monday had Mullins not abandoned switch-hitting this spring, after years of struggling from the right side of the plate, hoping to eliminate the most glaring hole in his game. It was a gamble, and it worked. Mullins is 15-for-33 (.455) off southpaws, leading all MLB batters (of either side) in hits against lefties.
"I knew that I put in a solid amount of work in the offseason off of machines," Mullins said. "I'm adjusting fairly quickly, and it feels pretty good."