Mancini returns to O's starting lineup

February 28th, 2021

After a year away, is returning to the field.

Manager Brandon Hyde said that Mancini will be in the starting lineup today when the Orioles open Grapefruit League play against the Pirates at Ed Smith Stadium, marking the slugger’s first game action since recovering from Stage 3 colon cancer.

The plan is for Mancini to play first base Sunday and then rotate between first and designated hitter every other day for the early part of spring, Hyde said. If all goes well, Mancini could be playing every day by mid-to-late March, with an eye toward achieving his goal of being ready for Opening Day.

“I’m going to talk to him every single day, see how he’s feeling every single day,” Hyde said. “We’ll crank up the playing time if he feels well the last couple weeks.”

Pitching plans
The Orioles are planning to tab a long slate of non-roster relievers behind starter Thomas Eshelman in Sunday’s opener, per Hyde. The list includes:

• LHP Fernando Abad
• RHP Eric Hanhold
• LHP Josh Rogers
• RHP Isaac Mattson
• RHP Marcos Diplan
• RHP Conner Greene

Of those arms, Mattson is the only rostered player. The 25-year-old righty was acquired in the Dylan Bundy trade in 2019 and added to the 40-man roster this past November.

Is that you, DJ?
Best shape of your life? The most transformed body in O’s camp might well belong to DJ Stewart, who dropped 10-12 pounds this winter in an attempt to improve his mobility and defense in the outfield. Stewart said he slimmed down at the Orioles’ suggestion, incorporating more cardio into his workouts and hiring a personal chef.

“It was difficult at first, because I wasn’t used to it. But as the offseason went on, it became a lot easier for me, keeping the weight off and maintaining what I need nutrition-wise,” Stewart said. “I’m actually eating more often, but it's not that big of meals, and I’m eating healthier, as well. I’m trying everything I can do to be in the best shape that I can be in.”

This is a big spring for Stewart, a 2015 first-round pick who has been passed by Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle on the depth chart in recent years. His '20 season was enigmatic: Stewart showed strong on-base skills but did not record a hit in his first 28 plate appearances (16 at-bats) before going on a tear, socking seven homers in his next nine games.

The result was an odd slash line: .193/.355/.455 (.809 OPS), seven homers and 15 RBIs in 31 games. But it was consistent with the way Stewart has previously shown flashes without fully establishing himself across parts of three big leagues seasons, regularly set back by injuries and defensive gaffes. He’s fighting for at-bats this spring as the fourth outfielder and designated hitter, where the O’s are likely to rotate several players in the early going.

“There’s been a lot of outside things that have been said, but I know I can play defense,” he said. “I’m looking for the opportunity to play, to show you guys and to show everyone.”

LeBlanc back in orange and black
Assessing in his own words his 2020 season, during which Wade LeBlanc pitched to a 8.06 ERA before injury struck, the veteran lefty called it “a disaster.” Such was an apt description of the past year for his hometown of Lake Charles, Louisiana, which endured not only the pandemic, but the devastation from Hurricane Laura and severe ice storms, as well. That's why LeBlanc was busy when he returned home in late August following his season-ending elbow injury, with the dual focus of getting healthy and helping his local community.

To that end, LeBlanc (along with former O’s infielder Jace Peterson) raised more than $56,000 to help rebuild Lake Charles, all while the journeyman southpaw waited for a chance to extend his career. That opportunity came when the O’s, who kept tabs on LeBlanc throughout his rehab process, brought him back on a Minor League deal on Feb. 3.

A 12-year veteran who has played for eight teams, LeBlanc said it took 10-11 weeks for the stress reaction in his elbow to heal and approximately 14 weeks before he felt fully healthy.

He’s back in camp as a non-roster invitee for the second straight year, again with a chance to crack the Opening Day roster for an O’s team in dire need of depth -- and with many bulk innings to fill.

“From the COVID stuff to the injury to the performance, [last year] wasn’t what I envisioned in any way,” LeBlanc said. “To have an organization like this give you a chance to make good on the contract is a blessing for me, and I’m not going to waste it.”