Peter Schmuck: The new and improved Jorge Mateo just might be the real deal - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Peter Schmuck

Peter Schmuck: The new and improved Jorge Mateo just might be the real deal

Photo Credit: MItch Stringer USA TODAY Sports

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BALTIMORE – The Orioles have spent the last three years trying to figure out Jorge Mateo, but maybe he just needed to figure things out for himself.

The blinding speed and quickness were always there — the kind of speed that can turn a walk into a triple and the kind of quickness that can turn a near-certain single up the middle into a SportsCenter web gem.

The quick bat and sneaky power was somewhere in there, too, but has taken longer to harness than the New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics and San Diego Padres were willing to wait. The Orioles claimed him off waivers from the Padres during the 2021 season and are being rewarded for their patience.

The new-and-improved Jorge Mateo was on display again Monday afternoon at Oriole Park, where he rocketed a double off the Great Wall of Baltimore in the third inning and added the final run of the Orioles’ five-run fourth with a sacrifice fly in a 11-3 blowout victory over the Boston Red Sox.

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It wasn’t an entirely new occurrence … certainly not this year. Mateo got off to a strong start last season and was a driving force behind the Orioles ‘early surge into contention, but what looked like the start of something bigger fizzled and when he came back to spring training this past February, his future on the team’s deep big league roster seemed very much in doubt.

Gunnar Henderson was moving to shortstop full-time and top prospect Jackson Holliday seemed destined to squeeze Mateo out of any chance for a full-time role on the infield, but when the regular season began it became obvious that the kid wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Mateo stepped in at second base and needed only a handful of games to look like he’d played there forever.

Through the first two months of the season, he has a .250/.300/.470 slash line and has been flashing that otherworldly speed on the basepaths at almost every opportunity. The only question is whether this is just another five-tool tease or Mateo is on his way to a breakout season at aged-for-an-Oriole 28 years old.

Can’t say I’m sure that will happen – since he still needs to get on base at a higher rate —  but I did caution in a January post here that it was too early to give up on all that talent.

What makes me think that this time it’s for real is the way Mateo has refined his approach at the plate and is not nearly as vulnerable to the two-strike breaking ball outside the zone. Viewing him from the center-field perspective, he looks like a completely different hitter. In his final two at-bats Monday, he flied out to right and hit a sizzling lineout to center field.

“He’s hitting with so much more confidence right now,’’ manager Brandon Hyde said. “I think he’s really aware of what pitchers are trying to do with him, especially deeper in the count. He’s trying to cover out there and he’s done such a better job at that … to be able to take the slider that’s off the plate and be ready for the mistake.”

The impact on the club is pretty easy to assess. In the games in which Mateo has scored a run, the Orioles are 15-2, and that’s just the offensive contribution. He has also made a bunch of heroic defensive plays at what is supposed to be an unfamiliar position.

“He’s done something almost every single game to help us win,’’ Hyde added. “Literally, almost every single time he gets a start, to help us win whether it’s defensively or a big at-bat or the ability to get on base. Like I said before, when he gets on base he scores almost every single time because he creates havoc on the bases … and the defense is spectacular.”

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