BOSTON—When Orioles outfielder Austin Hays was twice put on the 10-day injured list this season because of right hamstring strains, it seemed familiar. Over the previous three years, Hays had lost substantial time because of injuries. Now, he was hurt again.
Since his return from the second hamstring strain on June 11th, Hays has played in all but two games. He enters Sunday’s game against the Boston Red Sox with a .254 average, 21 home runs, 65 RBIs and a .768 OPS.
When he’s healthy, Hays is a force.
“This is the last piece of the puzzle that I was lacking in the big leagues, a consistent stretch of games,” Hays said. “Last year, I was finally feeling good and starting to put it together, and the season ended. The year before, the same thing, I got called up, and I was feeling really good, and the season ended.
“I’ve just been able to do it for a longer period of time this year. We’ve got a couple of weeks left. I ‘m just going to try to continue to play the way I’ve played the last two months and finish strong.”
Hays said there hasn’t been significant change to his training.
“There wasn’t anything drastic,” he said. “There might have been one or two different drills that I added into stuff that I was already doing, continuing to hit that fastball machine and try to find that rhythm and timing that just keeps you consistently barreling up fastballs and carrying that into the games. I think just that with a consistent stretch of at-bats in games without getting hurt and having to rehab and restart again … Just those two things together have helped me find my rhythm.”
In 2017, Hays’ first full season as a professional, he played 148 games at three levels, beginning at High-A Frederick before his elevation to Double-A Bowie and 20 games with the Orioles.
In 2018, Hays played just 75 games, none with the Orioles, in a season that ended because of an ankle surgery.
In 2019, thumb and hamstring injuries limited him to 106 games, 21 with the Orioles. Last year, he missed a month because of a rib injury.
“This season definitely feels different because this is only going to be the second time that I’ve ever played 130 games in a year,” Hays said. Saturday was his 117th game in 2021.
“To finally reach the milestone of over 100 games … I was on the IL twice, and I was dealing with a lot of different stuff,” Hays said. “To be able to still put together 130 games this year, have a consistent stretch of where I felt like myself and I’ve been able to prove what I can do in the big leagues, it’s been very satisfying for me.”
Because Hays hasn’t hit well against right-handers –.219 versus .301 against left-handers — he has shared time with DJ Stewart. During his recent 17-game hitting streak, Hays has had more success against right-handers.
“The last two months, I don’t know what it was exactly that clicked. I feel comfortable against righties,” Hays said. “I feel good against the breaking ball. I’m hitting the breaking ball a lot better when it’s in the zone. I just have to do a better job of not chasing it when it’s out of the zone. I’m feeling really good against right-handed pitchers now, and the last two months has been a big improvement for me.”
Manager Brandon Hyde said that he’s been impressed with Hays’ improvement.
“He’s had a great month,” Hyde said. “We’re happy with the progress he’s making. He’s getting a chance to play every day, and he’s had an injury-plagued career up to this point, where he hasn’t been able to get everyday at-bats. He hasn’t been able to stick in a lineup for a long period of time. He’s always had the ability and he’s playing every day, facing major league pitching … made some adjustments throughout the year, taking really good at-bats.
“Lightning fast hands, he’s unbelievably athletic. He’s a really good outfielder in three spots. He’s just maturing as a major league player.”
In the final two months of the season, Hays and the Orioles have been playing against the other four American League East team and learning from it.
“You can definitely tell, all these teams that we’re playing, they are playing for something,” Hays said. “Even if we don’t come out with a sense of urgency or have something that we’re playing for personally ourselves. These guys are playing for something. They’re not going to take it easy, and they’re not going to give anything away.
“We have to play the same way and find something deep down that we’re playing for and find a reason to come out here every day and play the game at the highest level. Me, personally, I have that with my family. I have a son now. I’m coming out every day, and I’m trying to take advantage of every opportunity I get in the big leagues because it’s hard to get your opportunities in the big leagues.”
On Thursday night, Hays’ 10th-inning single against Yankees left-hander Wandy Peralta lifted the Orioles to a 3-2 win. After falling behind 3-0, Peralta got a strike on a changeup. Hays was looking for another and bounced a single through the infield.
“That was my first big-league walk-off so that was probably the most exciting thing for me personally that’s happened,” Hays said. “It was just a fun comeback win, too. Yeah, it was a very meaningful game.”
Centerfielder Cedric Mullins has had an exceptional season from start to finish, closing to within one home run of becoming the first Oriole to hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases in a season. Rightfielder Anthony Santander has struggled with a sprained ankle, but he also has hit 17 home runs. Hays has 21 homers and when all three are healthy, the Orioles’ outfield defense is strong. The future appears bright.
After the season ends in two weeks, Hays is going to get himself ready to take on 2022.
“I’m going to rest up early on and just make sure my body’s right and get everything in line from a long season this year,” Hays says. “It’s going to entail a lot of mobility and stretching early on, and then I’ll move into weight training. I’ll take some hunting trips in the meantime and enjoy my family time as much as I can.”
Minor league update: Bruce Zimmermann allowed three runs in 2 1/3 innings on a rehab assignment in Double-A Bowie’s 9-2 loss to Altoona. The loss means that the Baysox must win on Sunday to secure a playoff berth.
Zimmermann, who is on the 60-day injured list because of a sprained right ankle, allowed five hits, struck out three and walked none. The Orioles hope he can return for at least one appearance before the end of the season on October 3rd.
Bowie had just three hits, two by shortstop Jordan Westburg, who hit his fourth home run. Shortstop Cadyn Grenier hit his ninth home run.
Blaine Knight (0-2) allowed five runs in 3 1/3 innings as Triple-A Norfolk lost to the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, 11-4. Dean Kremer started and worked two innings, allowing a run on three hits, striking out two.
Shortstop Mason McCoy hit his ninth home run, second baseman Jahmai Jones hit a two-run homer, his 11th, and third baseman Tyler Nevin hit his 16th.
First baseman TT Bowens homered in High-A Aberdeen’s 3-2 loss to Greenville. It was Bowens’ fifth home run of the season.
Houston Roth (8-4) allowed six runs in 1 2/3 innings as Low-A Delmarva lost to Salem, 11-5.
Aberdeen and Delmarva play their final games of the season on Sunday.