SARASOTA, Fla. -- Last year, one of Austin Hays' main goals was to play a full season. Now that he has those 145 games under his belt, it’s time to tweak the little things. Ryan Mountcastle, too, is aiming for better consistency after the same number of games and middling results at the plate late in the season.
An offseason of hard work for the two came together powerfully on Wednesday against the Pirates, as the duo combined for seven RBIs during the O’s 7-4 win at Ed Smith Stadium.
“I'm just trying to make sure I'm swinging at good pitches to hit and laying off the stuff out of the zone,” said Hays, who slugged his second homer in as many games, slashed a single to left and upped his Grapefruit League average to .364 along the way. “Right now, I've got some good pitches in the middle part of the plate, and I just got some barrel on them.”
The 27-year-old Hays entered his 2022 campaign on a tear, hitting .297 from Opening Day through the end of May, a span of 46 games. June was a bit cooler, as he slashed just .250/.284/.510 in the month but still managed some big sparks at the plate, needing just six innings to hit for the cycle on June 22 against the Nationals.
By his own admission, Hays got a little pull-happy in the second half of the season, and his numbers reflected it. After slugging 12 homers in the first half, he hit just four in the second. His RBIs fell from 46 to 14. His batting average dropped 50 points (from .270 to .220). His on-base percentage (.325 to .276) and slugging percentage (.454 to .349) dipped low as well.
Mountcastle, 26, experienced similar second-half frustrations last season and his numbers tracked with Hays’: a .273 first-half batting average fell to .221 in the second half, his homers went from 14 to eight and slugging percentage (.476 to .357) and OPS (.786 to .656) also dropped after the All-Star break.
And so, the offseason was spent refocusing and retooling, and when the duo hit camp this spring, the players were ready to put their winter work to the test.
“It's tough to get at-bats in the offseason, but we try to do our live [batting practices] and just do as much game-like stuff as we can, so that we can filter right into Spring Training and not feel like we haven't seen pitching in five months,” Hays said.
Hays’ first hit Wednesday -- a three-run homer in the fourth that scored the O’s first runs and gave them a lead they wouldn’t lose -- exited the park via right-center field. He lasered a single into left in the fifth, a hat tip to his ability to spray the ball to all fields.
“I felt like our guys were kind of scuffling a little bit coming out of the gate offensively, but they’re starting to swing the bat a little better now,” manager Brandon Hyde said.
Between Hays’ knocks, Mountcastle one-upped his teammate the only way he could, uncorking a towering grand slam to left field off a high-90s fastball from Pittsburgh reliever Jose Hernandez in the fifth inning.
Whether that will transition into the regular season and beyond is anyone’s guess, but the work has certainly paid off so far for the talented two. Hays said though the goal is to again stay healthy enough to be available for all 162 games, he believes that the numbers will come with that.
“They had great attitudes coming in [to camp],” said Hyde, who added that he never saw the duo’s attitudes waver last year even when they struggled. “They’ve always come to the ballpark ready to play, they both play hard, so now it’s just … both of these just being a little bit more consistent, but they’re still young players."