FREDERICK, Md.—In 2017, Austin Hays breezed through the Carolina League. He hit .330 with 16 home runs and 41 RBIs in 64 games with High-A Frederick before earning a promotion to Double-A Bowie, where he did just as well and spent the final weeks of the season in the majors.
Two years later, Hays is back with the Keys for the week as part of his minor league rehabilitation assignment for a sprained left thumb.
Hays, who hit .351 with five home runs and 15 RBIs in spring training before he was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on March 21, hurt his thumb on a headfirst slide into second base in a minor league game a few days later.
“I was stealing second,” Hays said. “It wasn’t a crazy play. It was nothing out of the ordinary, no collision. I just hit the bag funny and messed up my thumb.”
Hays was frightened that 2019 was going to be a repeat of last season, when he lost most of the season to a left ankle injury that required surgery in September. He thought he might have torn a ligament.
“If it was torn, I would have had to get surgery, and that would have been devastating for me,” Hays said. “Especially just coming back and starting to feel good from ankle surgery, so it was a relief to find out that it was just a sprain and that I could do the rehab without having to go under the knife again.”
Nearly two months after the injury, Hays is feeling better.
“I’m really healthy,” Hays said. “The body’s 100 percent — hand, ankle, thumb — everything’s good. I’m just trying to get the at-bats and get the innings back and get into a flow and rhythm and carry that into wherever I go next.”
On Friday night, Hays was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, a walk and was hit by a pitch. In his first five games, he’s batting .056 and is 1-for-18 in his rehab with Frederick.
“It’s just that part of playing every day and getting your at-bats every day,” Hays said. “Incorporating your routines in a schedule because you come into spring training. You build that routine, you start feeling comfortable, you get that feel for the games, and it starts to show up on the field, so that’s what I’m doing right now.
“I’m trying to build those routines and building that feeling of playing every day. I feel really good at the plate right now. I feel comfortable. I feel like I’m on time, not swinging at a lot of bad pitches. I think it’s only a matter of time before it starts to show up.”
Frederick manager Ryan Minor agrees.
“He’s one of those guys who needs at-bats right now,” Minor said. “Getting under the lights, getting to face some quality arms.
“He needs at-bats to get rolling, get confidence … He’s just a little bit behind as far as action and seeing pitches against quality competition. He’ll get caught up and get to where he needs to be.”
Hays hasn’t spent much time in the minors. He went from Short Season Aberdeen in 2016 to the Keys a year later, skipping Low-A Delmarva. He passed over Norfolk on the way to the Orioles, but won’t this time around.
“I haven’t been there, yet,” Hays said. “That was where I was supposed to go coming out of camp, and that’s where I’d been assigned. I think that’s where I’m working my way back up [to]. I’m just here getting my at-bats, getting my reps in. Wherever they want me to go next, I’ll be ready for it.”
Hays is expected to be assigned to Double-A Bowie, where he played last season. During spring training, he played center field, and it’s where the Orioles envision him as a major leaguer.
“That was a big part of what I worked on coming back from ankle surgery,” Hays said. “Trying to lose a little bit of weight, gain some foot speed, work on my running mechanics. I gained quite a bit of speed from where I was at coming into spring training last year, so I think I’m more suitable for center field than I was in years prior.”
Spring training was different for Hays. There was a new general manager, Mike Elias, a new manager, Brandon Hyde, and a different atmosphere.
“It’s great. I had a lot of fun during spring training,” Hays said. “They had preached, everybody was going to get a chance. I think everybody competed really hard. It was a very hungry and enthusiastic environment. It was a lot of fun, and I look forward to getting back up there and competing with those guys.”
Hays has been frustrated by his injuries, but he wasn’t angry about being sent down after a strong spring training.
“It’s a new environment being built, a lot of new guys trying to build relationships,” Hays said. “They said they needed to see me develop a little more in the minor leagues. They think I need to prove myself a little bit more. I understand where they’re coming from. I’m still only 23 years old. I’ve got to earn my way, just like everybody does.”