The Orioles have spent five years waiting for outfielder DJ Stewart to blossom. Stewart, the club’s first draft pick in 2015, got a brief opportunity with the Orioles in 2018 and a longer one that was cut short by an ankle injury last year that required surgery.
He was still recovering in spring training when Covid-19 shut down baseball for four months. He came back healthy on July 3rd and hoped that 2020 would be the year he solidified himself as a major leaguer.
It hasn’t turned out that way so far. After failing to get a hit and striking out eight times in 14 at-bats, Stewart, 26, was sent to the team’s alternate site at Bowie after Wednesday’s doubleheader loss to the Marlins in which the Orioles scored one run in two games. He did walk six times.
“I’d like to free him up a little bit,” manager Brandon Hyde said in a Thursday video conference all. “I think he was pressing, trying to get a bunch of hits in one at-bat. I’d like to see him go down there and take a lot of non-pressure at-bats and work on some things mechanically without having to produce at the major league level.
“He’s got the opportunity to go down there and really work on some things and take a lot of free at-bats versus right [handers] and left [handers] without any pressure at all. I think that’s important. I think that’s a good thing for a young player.”
With Trey Mancini out for the season after colon cancer surgery, there was playing time available for the Orioles’ young outfielders. Austin Hays and Anthony Santander are playing regularly, although neither one is hitting well — Santander has a .214 batting average and Hays is at .158. Stewart, Dwight Smith Jr. (.167) and Cedric Mullins (.083) were also getting playing time.
Two of the Orioles’ top prospects are outfielders Yusniel Diaz and Ryan Mountcastle, and they’re waiting for their chance, as is Ryan McKenna, who reported to Bowie this week.
“I think they are very aware that there’s a ton of opportunity here,” Hyde said. “I’m sure they feel if they do well, they’re going to stay and play a lot. I think that’s maybe added some pressure, but that’s also part of being in the big leagues. Pressure comes along with it. You have to embrace it. Some guys handle it differently.
“Some guys rise up. Some guys try too hard at times. I think that’s natural, human nature, but I think everybody’s aware of the opportunity that they have here. We talk a lot about it, the opportunities guys are getting. Guys who are up here and playing well, they’re going to continue to play.
“I hope we don’t put any undue pressure on them. It’s just the situation that we’re in here. They’re not having to wait their turn. The opportunity is in front of them. I’m just hoping they’ll take advantage of it.”
After Thursday’s game against the Marlins, who have won the first three games of the series, 20 percent of the Orioles’ 60-game season will have been played.
“This is a sprint season,” Hyde said “A lot of guys put a ton of work in for this sprint season. I’m sure they all wanted to get off to really good starts and to impress and solidify themselves like some of our guys did last year. I want to believe they want to play free and easy, but not put pressure on themselves, but I also think that’s very, very normal.”
In their three losses to Miami, which was coming off an eight-day layoff because at least 18 of their players tested positive for the coronavirus, the Orioles have scored just one run on 10 hits. They have been chasing pitches out of the strike zone.
“I think what you saw the last couple of days with our offense is guys trying to do way, way too much, getting outside of themselves and their at-bats, things we weren’t doing the first seven, eight games, laying off tough pitches. I thought their intent and the quality of our at-bats were really good against some really, really good pitching.
“I just thought we really got away from that the last couple of days and put too much pressure on ourselves.”
The three losses have dropped the Orioles to 5-6.
Lineup change: José Iglesias will return to the lineup at shortstop. He hadn’t started there since July 29th because of a left quadriceps injury. Iglesias was the designated hitter in both games of Wednesday’s doubleheader … Third baseman Rio Ruiz, who hasn’t played since Saturday, remains out because of right shoulder inflammation.