Back in the swing of things: Mateo homers in 1st AB off injured list

June 12th, 2024

BALTIMORE -- The first pitcher had to face after spending eight days on the concussion injured list? Not an easy opponent: Braves left-hander Max Fried, a 2022 All-Star and one of MLB’s top hurlers who possesses a wide array of offerings that the Orioles knew could present a challenge Tuesday night at Camden Yards.

“You know when Fried’s on the mound, it’s going to be a battle,” O’s outfielder Austin Hays said. “He mixes speeds really well. He’s got 97, 98 [mph] in the tank when he needs to get there. He throws seven pitches to every part of the plate. ... If he makes mistakes, then you’ve got to make him pay.”

Mateo returned to the lineup, stepped into the batter’s box in the second inning and almost immediately did just that -- in an unprecedented manner as well.

With a three-run homer vs. Fried, Mateo delivered the key blow against the Atlanta southpaw and powered Baltimore to a series-opening 4-0 victory. He also became the first big league hitter to go deep off an 0-2 curveball from Fried, who has been tying up hitters with that breaking ball over an eight-year MLB career consisting of 151 outings, including 134 starts.

The Orioles (44-22, a season-high 22 games above .500) stayed hot with their fifth straight win -- also their 15th in 19 games -- and were further fueled by the return of Mateo, a 28-year-old infielder who has continued to deliver big hits for the defending American League East champions.

“I feel really good about being able to come back and help the team win,” Mateo said via team interpreter Brandon Quinones.

Mateo was injured in an unlikely incident on June 2, when a swing from the bat of Cedric Mullins in the on-deck circle connected with his helmet as he crouched nearby. He exited that game in the fourth inning, entered concussion protocol and went on the IL the next day.

Baltimore went 6-2 during an AL East road trip against Toronto and Tampa Bay in Mateo’s absence. Upon the O’s return home, they reinstated Mateo, and then he wasted little time getting in on the fun of the team’s recent hot stretch.

After Anthony Santander drew a walk against Fried to open the second, Hays followed with a single. That’s when Mateo (previously 1-for-6 with three strikeouts lifetime vs. Fried) stepped to the plate.

Fried fired a 95.2 mph four-seam fastball near the top of the zone for a called strike. He came back with a 93.7 mph heater in a similar location, and Mateo swung late, fouling off a ball the other way to the right side.

With an 0-2 advantage, Fried looked to put another batter away using his curveball, which hitters were 8-for-50 (.160) with 20 strikeouts against this season entering Tuesday.

But the curve that Fried delivered to Mateo landed in an unintended spot.

"It was just one of those ones where you feel it slip out a little bit,” Fried said. “Instead of getting on top of it and making sure I buried it below the zone, it just kind of popped up and slipped out. He was looking for it and made a really good swing."

Mateo connected with the pitch left over the heart of the plate and jolted it a Statcast-projected 402 feet into the Orioles’ bullpen in left-center field. He became only the third hitter to go deep off Fried’s curveball this season, joining Dodgers sluggers Shohei Ohtani and Teoscar Hernández (both on May 5).

While Fried felt Mateo must have been anticipating a curveball, Baltimore’s No. 6 hitter insisted that wasn’t his approach.

“Early in the count, I was sitting on certain pitches,” Mateo said. “But in that spot, with an 0-2 count, I was just trying to put the ball in play.”

Whatever Mateo did to make it happen, the Orioles’ dugout was thrilled about the spark he brought in his return.

“What a great at-bat,” manager Brandon Hyde said.

“[Mateo] prepares the right way,” said Hays, who went 3-for-4 and chased Fried with an RBI single in the sixth. “So I had every expectation that he was going to come out tonight and have a good game.”

Mateo expected the same from the rest of the Orioles, who got another strong pitching performance, featuring right-hander Albert Suárez (5 1/3 innings) and four relievers combining for their sixth shutout victory of the season.

“We’re playing really well right now,” Mateo said. “Every time we go out there, we have all the confidence that we’re going to be able to win that game, and thankfully, these last couple of weeks, that’s exactly how it’s been.”