From even a fair distance, the baseball seemed to have fallen, somehow, from the Seattle night sky into Mitch Haniger’s glove, dashing the Orioles’ dreams along with it. Haniger had tumbled from above the yellow marker atop T-Mobile Park’s right-center field wall onto the warning-track dirt, apparently cradling Cedric Mullins’ long drive in dramatic fashion.
For the Orioles, momentarily, it was deja vu: One day after A’s center fielder Ramón Laureano went over the Oakland Coliseum wall to rob DJ Stewart of a potential game-winning hit, Haniger had done the same to Mullins in the eighth inning of a one-run game. Different city, different ballpark, same heartbreaking result.
“My brain was running a million miles an hour,” Mullins said later. “When I saw him jump up, I stopped, shocked that he might have caught it.”
Except, he didn’t. After a moment, Haniger rose empty-handed, while Mullins spun his left hand in a high circle rounding second base. The baseball was gone, vanishing in the grate-thin gap between Haniger’s glove and the right-field stands. The two-run homer highlighted another excellent all-around night in a season full of them for Mullins, and sparked the Orioles’ 5-3 come-from-behind win over the Mariners on Monday.
“We couldn’t tell -- our dugout was silent,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “When [Haniger] was on the ground and looking disappointed, I was wondering if he was deking us all.”
But that’s not how things are going for Mullins these days. On Monday, he also singled and doubled, leapfrogging Xander Bogaerts for the Major League lead in hits (38) and continuing his season-long assault on same-side pitching. His homer off southpaw Anthony Misiewicz was his 17th hit of the season against a lefty, the most in baseball by a wide margin. And it was his second-such homer, doubling his previous career total, all of which came as a right-handed batter before he abandoned switch-hitting.
Through 29 games, Mullins owns at least a share of the team lead in hits, runs, doubles, home runs, walks, batting average, OBP and slugging -- nearly every major offensive category. Per FanGraphs’ calculation of Wins Above Replacement, he’s been twice as valuable as any other Orioles regular.
On this night, though, Mullins could not do it alone. After Shawn Armstrong coughed up Haniger’s two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth, the O’s were grateful Freddy Galvis had followed Mullins with a two-run shot of his own in the top of the frame.
Those two swings were enough to supplement Dean Kremer’s finest start of the season, the young righty recording 13 outs in the air en route to twirling six-innings of one-run ball. It was Kremer’s longest outing since his MLB debut last September. He’d entered play with a 10.70 ERA over his last five starts.
“There was presence on the mound, great tempo, poise, the whole package for me. He attacked their hitters and made them beat him,” Hyde said. “It was a huge step forward, and hopefully he can build off this.”
When the Orioles optioned Kremer to their alternate site last month -- in part to take advantage of some early-season off-days and in part to manage the young righty’s workload -- it was the first of what should be many similar moves tentatively planned for the months ahead. Coming off the shortened 2020 season and with a stable of young arms either in or nearing the big leagues, the Orioles face an unprecedented balancing act in regard to those pitchers’ development and health. Which is why they’ll add and subtract them from the big league roster in what are essentially paper moves throughout the year, like they did with Bruce Zimmermann on Monday afternoon.
Zimmermann will be back in short order, just as Kremer was. The hope being in the long run, the result is more outings like Kremer’s latest, when he pitched as aggressively and efficiently as he ever has in the big leagues. Such is the patience required in betting on the growth of so many young players at once, a concept Mullins can attest to. It wasn’t so long ago he was in the Minors on a much less temporary assignment. Those days feel very far away now.
“He has certainly come a long way in two years in every aspect,” Hyde said. “He’s playing like an experienced veteran. … He just has more emotion. He’s obviously really comfortable now and knows he’s a good Major League player.”