Hays robs Vlad Jr. in catch of year candidate

O's outfielder makes grab in nearly same spot as Trout's rookie-season gem

September 20th, 2019

BALTIMORE -- More than seven years ago, on June 27, 2012, Angels rookie center fielder Mike Trout leaped and reached over the right-center-field wall at Camden Yards to rob Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy of a home run. The 20-year-old Trout jumped through a sun-splashed afternoon and, glove outstretched, into one of the signature moments of his American League Rookie of the Year Award-winning season. It was an acrobatic, athletic play, one of the most impressive in the ballpark’s history.

And it had few peers until Thursday, when virtually duplicated it. Himself a rookie trying to lay claim to the O's center-field job, Hays made perhaps the defensive play of the Major League season by robbing Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in the fourth inning of Thursday’s 8-4 loss to the Blue Jays. Hays reached over the right-center-field wall to take what would’ve been Toronto’s third consecutive homer away from Guerrero, then thumped his chest several times in celebration as he received a standing ovation.

Hays also walked twice and hit his first home run of the season in what turned into a career night, as he continued to make the most of his first big league opportunity in two years.

“That has to be one of the best catches of the year, period,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I love guys showing emotion. It fired him up, and it fires the dugout up. It was just a big-time play.”

Said Hays: “That’s the kind of catch you dream about playing in the backyard, playing Wiffle ball and all that.”

For the Orioles, it was another snapshot of the dynamic tools Hays has long shown in abundance, from his days as a fast-rising 21-year-old in 2017 to this spring, and especially since his surprise callup Sept. 7. In less than two weeks since the O's learned they can audition Hays here and send him to the Arizona Fall League later, he has squeezed in several standout defensive plays, five extra-base hits and at least one All-Star comparison into his 12 games back in the big leagues.

Hays is hitting .345/.424/.586 since his promotion, and he has provided the type of defensive prowess the Orioles have lacked in center field all year.

“It was a tremendous play,” Guerrero said.

Hays’ heroics Thursday ultimately came in a losing effort, as Toronto broke ahead with six runs in the seventh inning against Baltimore’s bullpen to claim a series sweep. But in the moment, his effort kept the O's just a run behind, and it saved starter Gabriel Ynoa from what probably would have been an early hook. Ynoa had already surrendered back-to-back solo homers to Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. before Guerrero lined his 3-2 fastball deep the other way.

“I wanted to run to center field, hug him and jump up and down,” Ynoa said through interpreter Ramón Alarcón. “It was an amazing play.”

Standing at his locker next to Hays’ in the Orioles' clubhouse, Trey Mancini lauded the energy and enthusiasm Hays showed before and after his play. Mancini is no stranger to homer robberies, having found himself on the wrong side of Jackie Bradley Jr.’s jaw-dropping takeaway this May.

“[Hays] comes out and plays with fire every night,” said Mancini, whose two RBI doubles highlighted his career-high four-hit night. “I’m really happy he’s back up here and healthy and showing everybody what he can do, because he’s a really good ballplayer.”

Hays likely would’ve been here sooner if not for the litany of injuries that forced him to miss chunks of the past two seasons. That history was the reason the O's decided to break camp without Hays, despite his stellar Spring Training and their lack of outfield depth. Their hope was that additional at-bats at Triple-A Norfolk would help fine-tune the dynamic tool set Hays spent his time in Sarasota flashing.

Even though Hays was again limited this year by thumb and hamstring injuries, the Orioles believe they're seeing the fruits of that decision playing out in real time. Hyde lauded the two walks that Hays -- who never had a walk rate higher than 8.2 percent at any Minor League stop -- took Thursday as much as the Statcast-projected 403-foot solo homer he hit off Jordan Romano.

“He’s an aggressive player,” Hyde said. “If he can learn to lay off borderline pitches the way he did tonight, get the ball in the strike zone, he’s going to be really good.”