BALTIMORE—For most of his Orioles career, Austin Hays has battled injuries. There was an ankle injury in 2018 that required surgery, a sprained left thumb in 2019, and a rib injury in 2020.
If only Hays were healthy. That was what Oriole fans and those with the club thought.
It wasn’t until 2021 that Hays finally established himself as a big leaguer, but there were still two hamstring injuries that sent him to the injured list. Despite those injuries, Hays managed to play 131 games, and he later revealed that he had played most of that season with a hernia that required surgery after the season.
“I dove for a ball in May,” Hays said. “I tore where your ab connects to your pelvis. I tore it. It was completely torn on my left side, and it was beginning to tear on my right side.
“That’s why I had the surgery when the season was over. That was the goal, to make it to the end of the year. I did not want to have surgery during the season because it was something that they said, they basically cut it anyway.
“If you go out there and blow it out, it’s the same thing that they’re going to do in the surgery anyways. Just knowing that as a player gave me the idea it’s painful, but it’s possible to play with it, so I’m going to do that.”
Instead of being labeled injury-prone, Hays is now known as the mild-mannered tough guy of the Orioles.
He avoided the injured list for two gruesome injuries the past two years. Hays has taken off a few days to allow his body to heal.
Last May in St. Louis, Hays tried to beat out a ground ball near the mound and while diving headfirst into first base, Cardinals pitcher Génesis Cabrera accidentally stepped on Hays’ left hand. He stayed in the game and pinch-ran the next day and avoided the injured list.
“I had the stitches in. I played with stitches in, but that was something that was my decision,” Hays said. “The doctor said that if you want to wear a batting glove and wrap it, we feel comfortable with you doing that, so that was something that the doctors gave me the OK where I wouldn’t … it couldn’t get worse, so to speak.
“For what that play looked like and what I first thought when I looked at my hand, I was really lucky that my hand didn’t get really seriously damaged. It was something that only took two days, maybe three days where I could get back in the lineup and just play through some pain.”
The next month, the night after Hays became the sixth Oriole to hit for the cycle, he made a diving catch in Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field, injuring his right wrist, an injury that was made worse when he was hit by a pitch a few weeks later.
Hays again avoided the injured list and played 145 games. When reminded of Hays’ ability to play through injuries, manager Brandon Hyde repeatedly knocked on the wood table in front of him in the Orioles’ interview room.
“Austin had a really good first half last year and the second half, numbers weren’t as good,” Hyde said. “A lot of that was because he played pretty banged up. I give him a lot of credit for that because his goal was to play a full season because he had a hard time in the past years, and he did it.
“He’s carried it into this year. He’s turned himself into a big-time professional where he has a routine of getting ready to play, takes care of his body, understands what it’s like to be an everyday major league player. So hard to do, and people don’t understand how hard that is. He has stayed away from the injury bug, and he’s done a great job.”
On April 25th, Hays injured his right hand trying to bunt against the Boston Red Sox. He came out of the game but missed only two games.
“At first, I thought it was for sure broken,” Hays said. “It looked terrible right away. It was blown up, but once again, it was something where they did the x-rays, it would be painful, but you can’t make it worse by playing with it.
“I didn’t feel like there was a need to go on the IL for that. We could just wrap it up and I could just play with it, and I could let it heal while I was in the lineup every day.”
Hays, who’s unfailingly polite and available after games, has endeared himself to his manager and teammates for that same attitude.
“He’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever been around.,” Hyde said. “His pain tolerance is incredible. This year, he got smoked in the finger. If you would have seen the finger after he came into the dugout after the inning … I thought he broke it. The bruising was incredible and the cut that he had from the pinch was, it was pretty bad.
“He wanted to play still. I would talk to him every day. ‘Just give me an extra day, just give me an extra day.’ Just because I wanted it to not linger. He is a really tough player, a tough kid. He loves to play and he shows up ready to play, and that’s not the norm sometimes. Sometimes guys need extra days.”
Why was Hays out for long periods of time with injuries early in his career and more recently been able to play through them?
“The thumb thing, there was no way I could have played through that. I dislocated my thumb and strained one of those ligaments pretty bad. I couldn’t squeeze my hand,” he said. “That would have seriously altered my performance, but I think just playing through the hernia, knowing that I was probably only 80 percent at the time. My speed wasn’t there. I couldn’t turn over the same way, but I felt I still went out there and performed at a really high level so to prove that to myself that I can still perform at a high level even when I’m not a hundred percent.
“I think that was something that was really good to learn. When you do have those small things that will take a week to heal or a couple of days to heal, you can do that while you’re still in the lineup and you stay on the field. That was an injury that I learned how to play through not being 100 percent.”
Things have changed for Hays, who has played in 39 of the Orioles’ 44 games.
“I think it’s a little bit of luck,” he said. “The couple of hand injuries that I’ve had, the doctors have given me the OK that it’s something I can play with and play through, the same with the hernia. That was just an injury I was capable of playing through.
“The other injuries I had before that, they were things that I could have made worse or could have seriously injured me if I were to play through them. Not saying that I’m lucky because I’ve still been getting hurt, but they were things to heal while I’m still on the field. If I’m in that scenario as a player, even if I’m not 100 percent, if it’s something I feel like I can be on the field, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB