Setting blistering pace, Gunnar taking aim at lofty HR goals

After MLB-high 15th blast, 5th leadoff, O's SS on track to top club single-season mark

May 19th, 2024

BALTIMORE -- Through 44 games of the season, is making it clear that the Orioles’ single-season home run record could be broken before the end of 2024.

The 22-year-old budding superstar may claim the Major League homer crown, too.

Henderson belted his 15th homer (tied with the Astros’ Kyle Tucker for the MLB lead) in Baltimore’s 6-3 victory over Seattle at Camden Yards on Sunday afternoon. Afterward, the defending American League Rookie of the Year’s teammates didn’t let Henderson’s early power barrage get to his head.

“Pretty average, at best,” ace Corbin Burnes said with a wide grin. “I mean, we’re not even through the month of May and he’s got 15 homers. And is it seven leadoff homers?”

It’s an MLB-high five, after Henderson took Mariners starter George Kirby deep in the bottom of the first inning in the series finale.

“He’s got room for improvement,” Burnes said with another smirk.

That comment came in jest, but Henderson is always working to improve all areas of his game. He wasn’t anywhere near satisfied following 2023, when he broke out with a first full-season campaign in which he slugged a team-high-tying 28 homers, recorded an .814 OPS and won an AL Silver Slugger Award.

Henderson, who has homered in three straight games, was confident he had more power he could tap into.

“I thought there was a lot more development that I had and a lot better swings that I could have taken from last year,” Henderson said. “I feel like I’m allowing myself to do that this year and just really take good approaches to the plate and try to honestly just get on base for the guys behind me. And whenever I can do some damage, then I’ll try and do it.”

A little more than a quarter into the season, Henderson is on pace to hit 55 homers. The O’s record is 53, set by Chris Davis in 2013. The only other player in team history to hit 50 or more in a season is Brady Anderson (50 in 1996). Anderson had 12 leadoff homers that year, another O’s record that Henderson could soon break.

Henderson pounced on a 1-2 splitter from Kirby and swatted it a Statcast-projected 422 feet over the center-field wall. It marked the third time in four games that Baltimore hit a leadoff homer (Jordan Westburg on Wednesday vs. Toronto and Henderson on Friday vs. Seattle).

“I’m trying to make it happen organically. Every time I kind of think of it, it usually doesn’t work out,” Henderson said of his leadoff success. “Just trying to get up there and put a good swing on the ball.”

Only four players age 22 or younger have had more home runs through his team’s first 44 games than Henderson this year -- Hall of Famers Eddie Mathews (16 for the Braves in 1953) and Harmon Killebrew (17 for the Senators in ‘59), Alex Rodriguez (16 for the Mariners in ‘98) and Bryce Harper (16 for the Nationals in 2015). Fernando Tatis Jr. also had 15, for the Padres in 2020.

In addition to homers, Henderson leads the Orioles in triples (four), RBIs (31), slugging percentage (.598) and OPS (.946), while also playing a Gold Glove-caliber shortstop.

“He’s a special player, and he’s fun to watch,” co-hitting coach Matt Borgschulte said. “He just continues to get better, which is an exciting thing for this team.”

Added manager Brandon Hyde: “He’s one of the best players in this game right now.”

Henderson sparked a Baltimore offense that made things tough on Kirby (five runs allowed in six innings) and Seattle’s pitching staff throughout the weekend. Colton Cowser (3-for-4) added an RBI infield single in the first, James McCann hit an RBI double in the second and Ryan O’Hearn homered in a two-run third, while Cedric Mullins collected a pair of RBI singles.

Meanwhile, Burnes racked up a season-high-tying 11 strikeouts, matching his total from his Opening Day gem vs. the Angels on March 28. The right-hander tossed six innings of one-run ball in a 94-pitch outing.

The Orioles (29-15) took two of three from the Mariners to cap a season-long eight-game homestand in which they went 5-3.

The team’s success is most important to Henderson, who is hoping to help lead Baltimore to a second straight AL East title and then deep into October. But he also isn’t ignoring the battle for a home run crown that could feature sluggers such as himself and Tucker, as well as the Dodgers’ Shohei Ohtani and the Yankees’ Aaron Judge, who have 13 apiece.

“Who wouldn’t say they want to be at the top in home runs in the Major Leagues?” Henderson said. “Just going out there and trying to help the team win, and if homers come with it, then so be it.”