SARASOTA, Fla. — With a tip of his helmet, Austin Hays bid adieu to the ball that sailed off his bat and left the yard at Ed Smith Stadium. It was the second time this week his stride slowed into a jaunt as he rounded first base.
An inning later, it was Ryan Mountcastle’s turn to enjoy a casual trip around the bases. His pull-side homer left the yard with ample room to spare for a grand slam, part of a power barrage from two Orioles hitters who experienced fewer of these moments in 2022 than expected.
Hays opened the campaign in robust form before injuries and inconsistencies led to a meager second half of the season. And Mountcastle experienced enough ill luck for a lifetime, a victim in some cases of the new deeper, higher left field wall at Camden Yards. Other times, things just didn’t go his way.
Having both of them hit home runs in Wednesday’s 7-4 win against the Pittsburgh Pirates might mean little more than a feel-good moment this early in spring training, when games don’t count and the outputs from presumed starters are less important than them maintaining their health.
But in the same vein, there’s that thought in the back of the mind: What if Hays and Mountcastle could maintain the success from their early spring training outings into a full season?
It would unlock the middle of Baltimore’s batting order. So perhaps a pair of Wednesday afternoon home runs do matter — in that it’s a first step toward much more.
“It’s tough to get at-bats in the offseason, but we try to do our lives and do as much game-like stuff we can so we can filter straight into spring training and not feel like we haven’t seen pitching in five months,” Hays said. “Looks like he’s feeling good right now. I know I’m feeling healthy and I feel like I’ve got some good rhythm and timing at the plate, so just keep that up for another three weeks.”
And then for another 26 weeks, if not longer.
Hays opened last season pushing for a place on the All-Star roster, finishing the first half of the season with a .270 average and 12 home runs as part of his 35 extra-base hits and 46 RBIs.
But the nagging injuries began early. He needed stitches on his hand after he was cleated in May. As the season progressed, Hays dealt with a sore wrist and a sore oblique, both of which didn’t limit much time on the field but hampered him regardless, even if he never landed on the injured list.
In the final 60 games he played, Hays managed a .220 batting average. He left the yard just four times and drove in 14 runners. The issue, Hays said, was a tendency to pull ground balls.
“Still same goal, just be available and be in the lineup every night,” Hays said. “I think the numbers will be there by the end of the year.”
Mountcastle remained fairly consistent throughout 2022, but he faced a good deal of bad luck, resulting in a .250 batting average and 11 fewer homers than the year prior. Both, he felt, could’ve — maybe even should’ve — been higher, especially based on his advanced metrics.
Nearly half the time (46.3%), Mountcastle’s exit velocity was 95 mph or faster. And according to Statcast, his .277 expected batting average ranked in the top 9% of the league, and his .509 expected slugging percentage ranked in the top 4%.
“It’s a new year, and hopefully they’ll start falling this year,” Mountcastle said last month. “I did pretty well, especially the advanced stuff, so hopefully they start falling.”
They’ve each started out this spring well, bucking any taste of what might be considered a disappointing 2022.
Hays hit his second home run Wednesday, driving a pitch beyond the right-center fence, and added a single the opposite way. That’s where he wants to hit — the more he’s shooting balls to right field, the better he’s seeing the pitch. In five games, Hays is hitting 4-for-11 with six RBIs.
Mountcastle stayed ahead of a fastball to produce his blast to deep left field, his first homer of the spring. But he has driven in seven runs in his six games already.
“I never saw their attitude kind of waver last year,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “I thought they took as good of at-bats as they could throughout the year. They’ve always come to the ballpark ready to play. They both play hard. So now it’s just ... both of these guys just being a little bit more consistent.”
It’s only a spring training game in early March. But momentum must start somewhere.
Hyde provided a series of injury updates Wednesday morning, announcing that left-hander DL Hall threw a side session and right-hander Dillon Tate threw off the half mound. Both sessions went well, Hyde said, and are positive steps as Hall works back from a minor back injury that delayed the start to his spring and Tate progresses from a forearm strain that will keep him out the first month of the season.
Hall will next pitch a live bullpen session in a few days, Hyde said. Right-hander Félix Bautista, who has progressed slowly due to a knee sprain and shoulder soreness last season, will also throw a live bullpen session soon.
Meanwhile, left-hander Nick Vespi will participate in a simulated game in a few days, too, as he recovers from offseason hernia surgery. And utilityman Terrin Vavra, who experienced shoulder soreness Monday, is feeling better.