BALTIMORE -- Leading off the bottom of the first inning Sunday afternoon, Hanser Alberto swatted an 0-2 Mike Minor fastball into right field for a single. Alberto didn’t hit it particularly hard, just 84.9 mph, but his placement was perfect. The ball found grass.
Five innings later, Alberto speared a 1-2 curve from Minor back past the mound. At 95.5 mph, it was hit harder, but hardly scorched. Again, Alberto’s placement was pristine -- another single skipped cleanly through the center of the diamond. Then in the eighth, an 89.5 mph roller toward the hole between third and short. Yep, another hit.
Though none of the hits factored heavily in the Orioles’ 10-4 loss to the Rangers at Camden Yards, together they proved to be a microcosm of the type of season it’s been for Alberto, who was cut four times this winter, spent spring swinging to stay in the big leagues, and simply hasn’t stopped hitting since. Now it’s September, and he could potentially accomplish something really special.
“I did not expect him to compete for the batting title,” Orioles general manager and executive vice president Mike Elias said. “It’s been unbelievable.”
And yet, that’s exactly what Alberto has at least an outside chance of doing over the season’s final three weeks, particularly if he can string together more games like the one he had on Sunday. He will need help. Alberto’s 40th multihit game of the year put his average at .321 -- within shouting distance of White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, who leads the American League with a .334 mark. Alberto also was looking up at Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu (.328), and deadlocked with Astros outfielder Michael Brantley (.321). No Orioles hitter has won the batting crown since Frank Robinson in 1966.
“I try not to think about the batting title,” Alberto said, though it’s difficult since his father, Tony, a sports broadcaster in the Dominican Republic, sends him daily updates via text. “This is day by day. I have to keep consistent, try to finish strong and see what happens.”
Consider it something to watch over the season’s final 19 games, which the Orioles now look toward having dropped eight of nine. The culprit Sunday again was the pitching, which allowed double-digit runs for the AL-most 25th time this season. It began with Asher Wojciechowski surrendering four in a brief two-inning start; the Rangers piled on two off Gabriel Ynoa, three off Dillon Tate and another against David Hess.
The Orioles managed a Renato Núñez solo homer but just two other hits besides Alberto’s off Minor, who logged eight innings for his 13th win. The four-game sweep was the first for the O’s at the hands of the Rangers in Baltimore since 1972.
“You want to do a good job, but you also want to get the 'W,'” Alberto said. “To lose, it’s not the same feeling, even if you have three, four, five hits in a game.”
Still, Alberto said winning the batting title “would mean everything,” calling it “proof that I can play at this level.” That’s been Alberto’s driving force all year, after spending most of the past nine seasons in the Minors and last offseason bouncing around -- from the Rangers to the Yankees to the Orioles to the Giants then back to Baltimore -- like a spiked slider along the waiver wire.
It was hardly news when the Orioles designated him for assignment in February, Alberto was a career .192 hitter in 89 career games. After they reclaimed him a week later, Alberto hit .235 in big league camp. Then he hit .314 in April, .263 in May, .354 in June, .295 in July, .354 in August and .323 so far in September.
“There was a period of time where he seemed like someone we might be able to strategically push through waivers,” Elias said. “We tried it. It didn’t work, I kicked myself very hard when that happened. As soon as he went back on waivers again, we felt like we lucked out and grabbed him right away.”
Part of that was Alberto’s anonymity; he said himself Sunday that he “basically came from nowhere.” Another reason was his extreme contact-driven skill set, which, while it translated to batting titles in the Minors and twice in winter ball back home in the Dominican Republic, has been greatly devalued in the modern game.
In a world where Orioles assistant GM Sig Mejdal routinely appears on the Oriole Park scoreboard schooling fans about OPS, Alberto largely eschews walks and extra-base hits. His hard-hit rate is in the 0 percentile, per Statcast. He rarely strikes out. And though the Orioles cannot pinpoint exactly how or why, he continues to crush left-handers at a historic clip.
Alberto’s three hits Sunday gave him 84 this year against southpaws -- by far the most in baseball and the highest single-season total since Ichiro in 2004. In the past 35 years, only Tony Gwynn (90) in 1987 and Don Mattingly (87) in ’86 managed more.
“He’s somebody who is able to just put the barrel on the baseball,” Elias said. “He’s another young guy that has done about as much as anybody with the opportunity he’s gotten here in Baltimore.”