This Oriole's heating up at just the right time

March 17th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jake Rill’s Orioles Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox. 

SARASOTA, Fla. --  believes he made personal history in the Orioles’ 7-6 Grapefruit League win over the Pirates on Tuesday afternoon.

The 28-year-old infielder/outfielder began his day by tripling to left-center field -- a play aided by the ball deflecting off the glove of Pirates center fielder Jack Suwinski and rolling through the outfield grass to left. Lester later gave Baltimore the lead with … another triple. On that one, the ball caromed off a wall in foul territory down the right-field line, allowing Lester to again race to third.

“I don’t know that I’ve had two triples in a game in my entire life,” said Lester, who had two triples in 145 games with Triple-A Toledo last year.

Lester had never had a two-triple game over his first seven professional seasons, all spent in the Tigers’ system after he was selected in the 13th round out of Missouri in the 2015 MLB Draft. It isn’t surprising he accomplished the feat this week, though. Not with how much he’s been raking in Florida.

Entering Friday, Lester owned a seven-game Grapefruit League hitting streak. Over that span, he went 12-for-20 with four extra-base hits (including a double and a homer), eight RBIs and three runs scored. Lester's torrid stretch has followed a cold start in which he went 1-for-12 in his first seven contests.

What’s changed?

“There’s some stuff I’ve been working on in the cage, obviously. That’s a daily progression and routine,” Lester said. “But other than that, I think it’s mostly some timing and just getting comfortable again.”

Some Orioles fans may not be too familiar with Lester. His signing went a bit under the radar during the Winter Meetings, when he inked a Minor League deal on Dec. 6.

Now, the noise being made by Lester’s bat is making him impossible to ignore. His triples on Tuesday had exit velocities of 105.5 and 105.2 mph, per Statcast, both ranking among the five hardest-hit balls of that game. Even his single (102.4 mph) and flyout (103.7 mph) came off the bat hard.

“Wow,” manager Brandon Hyde said postgame Tuesday. “I mean, he’s hitting every ball on the nose. Love his at-bats he takes. I love the balanced approach, the way he uses the whole field. ... He’s squaring up almost everything right now, and it’s fun to watch him. Love the competition that’s going on with those guys for the last few spots on our roster.”

It’s been a heated battle thus far. Franchy Cordero, Lewin Díaz and Ryan O’Hearn are also all left-handed-hitting non-roster players with experience at first base, and they’ve each impressed at times, as well. Terrin Vavra is the likely frontrunner for the final bench spot at this point, due to his hot bat and defensive versatility.

But Lester can move around the diamond, as well, with the ability to play first, third and corner outfield. He’s even made appearances at second base and shortstop in the Minors.

Lester knows he’s going up against strong competition, referring to the other bench candidates as “all great dudes and great baseball players.” His goal is the same as the others’ -- to force his way onto the team.

“In my mind, we’re trying to make it as hard as we can on Hyder and the staff to make those decisions,” Lester said. “I think that’s a good problem for us and a good problem for them, making tough decisions, because they know what they’re getting when the season gets rolling. And then they know that, if something happens, we’re all ready to come whenever.”

Lester believes his left-handed power -- which has been evident during his hot streak -- and positional flexibility can give him the edge.

“I just think that those two things together can bring some value and hopefully help them win some baseball games,” Lester said.