Healthy Stewart 'even more confident' in camp

O's outfielder's right ankle fully healed after layoff to start '20

July 9th, 2020

BALTIMORE -- 2019 was a bittersweet year for , as he earned his way back to the big leagues only to see two chances at extended playing time fizzle due to injury. It was a year that began full of promise and ended in frustration.

2020 could be exactly the opposite.

Perhaps no Orioles player benefited more from the recent shutdown than Stewart, who moved up the outfield depth chart during the downtime. Over the 3 1/2 months that baseball was paused, Stewart's surgically repaired right ankle, which he was still rehabbing in March, fully healed.

Meanwhile, the Orioles learned they'll be without starting right fielder Trey Mancini due to his colon cancer treatment. Fellow outfielders Dwight Smith Jr. and Anthony Santander have yet to work out during Summer Camp due to undisclosed reasons.

That leaves Stewart and Austin Hays as the club’s only active full-time outfielders as of Wednesday’s first intrasquad game, and it should set Stewart up not only for a long look this camp but also a significant role this season. Stewart started in left field for Wednesday's game, but he's a candidate to play both corners going forward.

“I am going to play him as much as possible here in these next 2 1/2 weeks,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He’s come in in great shape, and he’s swinging the bat really well right now. Making defense a priority also, he's getting a lot of extra work in defensively and doing a great job. He has put himself in a position to play a lot to really get evaluated the right way.”

It’s similar to the opportunity that Stewart, Baltimore's first-round Draft pick in 2015, earned after a sizzling stretch at Triple-A Norfolk last May. He collected three hits in his first 2019 big league appearance last May 28 against the Tigers, then started five of the next six games. However, injury struck in the form of a collision down the right-field line in Texas on June 5, as Stewart sustained a severe right ankle strain on the play, as well as a microfracture, unbeknownst to him at the time.

Stewart didn’t appear in the big leagues again until Aug. 6, sustaining a concussion four innings into his return. He then received sporadic playing time down the stretch, finishing the year with a .238 average, four homers and a .698 OPS in 44 games.

“Last year was tough for him from the injury standpoint, he didn’t get the at-bats we’d have loved to have seen him get and also the innings defensively,” Hyde said.

Stewart underwent microfracture surgery in October and was nearly game-ready by mid-March. He’s even more ready now.

“It helped me tremendously,” Stewart said of the layoff. “I thought I was in a really good place, ready to come back toward the end when everything was shut down. But being home and having this second offseason to do what I normally do during the offseason put me in a really good place as far as my body and being ready to compete and being 100 percent. I thought the ankle was good then, but I am even more confident now.”

That has Stewart looking forward to “just being able to focus on baseball and getting back into my routine and just being DJ, the guy I was in that month of May before I got called up.” Stewart hit .291/.396/.548 over his final 63-game stretch at Norfolk, and he had 24 homers across 179 career games with the Tides. He has a .358 career on-base percentage in the Minors.

“That’s who I know I can be,” Stewart said. “The best version of me is the guy who earned his way to the big leagues last year. Last year, I showed I no longer need to be in Triple-A. My numbers proved that. I got off to a pretty hot start when I got called up, but the injuries back to back, I was never able to become myself and get my timing and routine down.”