Gunnar hits 1st HR so hard he lost his helmet

On little rest, No. 2 overall prospect collects two hits in impressive MLB debut

September 1st, 2022

CLEVELAND -- Gunnar Henderson had no need for his helmet. No matter what, he had to clear his head by the time he returned to the dugout. There would be another piece of hardware over his noggin and around his neck.

Henderson needed just two big league at-bats to collect his first career hit, home run, RBI and all, sending a slider from Guardians starter Triston McKenzie to deep right-center field in the fourth inning of Wednesday’s 4-0 win at Progressive Field. That mighty left-handed swing -- the one that rocketed him up prospect charts and ultimately to his debut -- had just sent a ball 107.1 mph a projected 429 feet, helmet be darned.

Upon Henderson’s return to the visitors’ dugout, Adley Rutschman had the Orioles’ famed Home Run Chain ready to bestow upon his close friend, fellow top prospect and 2019 Draft classmate. It became a moment frozen in time, excitement for the present as much as one that the O’s hope to see for years on end.

Henderson, Baltimore’s top prospect and No. 2 overall in baseball per MLB Pipeline, had arrived with an oomph -- and a helmet-shedding hair flip.

“We tried them on, and that was the closest one,” Henderson said with a smile. "I guess I got too much hair going on."

Arguably more important than the home run itself is the win it helped propel. Baltimore’s victory kept the club in the hunt for the final AL Wild Card spot, as the team is two games back of Toronto after the Blue Jays lost to the Cubs, 7-5. Henderson can try to impact it even more, when he and his teammates try to win the set in Cleveland against 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber on Thursday.

And then there’s this: Henderson became the first Oriole to homer for his first big league hit since Trey Mancini in 2016. He joins Mancini, Jonathan Schoop ('13) and Larry Haney (1966) and Mancini as the only players in club history to record a home run in their debut.

For good measure, Henderson rapped off another hit in the ninth, a single through the right side. He lost his helmet again on that one.

"I think we need to get him a chin strap,” said manager Brandon Hyde, “or some Velcro or something.”

“He put a good swing on it. I think he probably did it for effect, you know?” McKenzie quipped. “Show the flow a little bit when he runs around the bases.”

In the field -- lined up at third base, where he could get the lion’s share of looks going forward -- Henderson converted four putouts and assisted on three others. One kick-started a big double play in the fourth, as Jordan Lyles faced two on and no one out, en route to throwing 6 2/3 scoreless innings in Baltimore’s 12th shutout of the year.

But it was Henderson who had the team’s bright orange MVP belt draped over the chair at his locker, who received the laundry cart shower of not-to-be-disclosed liquids and (possibly) food items and who was not running on any nerves despite how much those have been allowed.

Henderson arrived in Cleveland on Wednesday morning with just about 45 minutes of sleep, he said. He had no time for nerves.

“I just went out there and was myself,” he said, “and felt like it was a pretty good day.”

“Really, really special,” Hyde said of the homer. “It was a hit we needed, too, big time.”

“I'm looking forward to being able to sit on the sidelines [or] in the dugout and continue to watch what kind of player he is,” Lyles said. “Tonight, he helped us win a ballgame.”

At the end of Henderson’s storybook moment, he tried to pick out his family -- mom, dad, two brothers, grandparents and girlfriend -- looking for TV cameras to steer him in the right direction. He was unsuccessful. But waiting for him at the dugout was a friendly face: Rutschman, Home Run Chain in hand and top prospect torch fully passed on.

“It was kind of a surreal moment, because I’ve been able to come up through the Minor Leagues with him and watch his career,” Henderson said. “Being able to do that up here with him is pretty awesome.”

And then, he was handed the MVP belt as well as the floor of the visitors' clubhouse at Progressive Field.

“They asked me to say a word,” Henderson said, “and I just told them, ‘Thank you for letting me come out here and do this.’”