SARASOTA, Florida — Before stepping into the batter’s box for the second time Friday, Gunnar Henderson paused.
The Orioles infielder, ranked the top prospect in all of baseball, felt as if he had rushed his first plate appearance. He had done that often early in spring training, actually, leading to two hits in his first 22 at-bats.
So Henderson took a deep breath, calming himself, reminding himself that he couldn’t make up for his slow start with one swing.
“I still got a lot of spring left and a lot more ABs to come,” Henderson told himself. “No reason to worry about anything.”
Then the 21-year-old worked a walk before jumping all over a curveball that was left over the plate. He drove it off the wall in right-center field and hustled around the bases for a triple — his third hit of the spring, yet the clearest sign that he was finding his rhythm at the plate.
And Sunday, in the Orioles’ 8-0 win against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Henderson added a single and a walk to what appears to be a turning of the page.
A wrist injury early in camp threw off his rhythm. The soreness of his right wrist kept him from batting practice for a few days. And once back, he was “thrown in the fire” of games, he said, without a true ramp-up period on the backfields to face live pitching out of the limelight.
Players work throughout the offseason, but they hardly see live pitching in game settings. Henderson hadn’t faced a pitcher in a game-like setting since last season ended. Once he returned to games, Henderson put “pressure on myself” to deliver immediately — a pressure that only made things more difficult.
Manager Brandon Hyde called it a “typical young-person spring,” pressing at the plate after a standout 34 games with Baltimore last season in which he hit .259 with four homers. Henderson’s triple Friday, then, was the start of something better.
The turnaround, Henderson said, is a combination of “seeing a lot more pitching and my wrist actually feeling good.”
“Those played a big part in it,” Henderson said. “I feel like I’m starting to feel good at the plate, and I knew it was going to be a progression because I had to go through stages, because I wasn’t getting any live ABs before games.”
The expectations around Henderson are high. He will anchor the left side of the Orioles’ infield and is a candidate for the rookie of the year award.
But in the same vein, he’s a 21-year-old with just 132 major league plate appearances. Periodic struggles aren’t out of the realm of normality. And to have those struggles early in spring is likely better than late in the summer.
“He’s just getting back into the swing of things,” co-hitting coach Matt Borgschulte said. “Not something we’re really worried about. We know he’s going to have another great year.”
Sharing the joy
The idea came to Ramón Urías once he saw the lineups for the Orioles’ spring training games. He knew he wasn’t involved in Friday’s game, which would give him an early end to his training in Sarasota. And then, he thought, he could drive down to Miami and be there before first pitch of the World Baseball Classic.
It all worked perfectly, allowing Urías to watch his brother, Luis, play for Mexico in a win against Puerto Rico that pushed El Tri to the semifinals Friday night. And the next morning, Urías drove to Fort Myers to play for the Orioles against the Boston Red Sox — with the win for Mexico still on his mind.
“They have represented their country very well,” Urías said. “They’ve been playing great baseball, and hopefully they can keep advancing.”
In another reality, Urías might be playing alongside his brother for Mexico. He was chosen for the team.
But an insurance issue through the World Baseball Classic kept him off the roster at the last moment, dashing that dream because of a knee injury Urías suffered late last season. He’s fully healthy again, but the 28-year-old is on the outside looking in, cheering on his brother from the stands rather than on the diamond beside him.
“I don’t feel that way anymore,” Urías said of the disappointment he first felt at the news he couldn’t compete for Mexico. “I’m good with it. I feel like I’m still part of the team and I’m super excited for what my brother’s doing and what the team is doing.”
Urías was joined by his parents, who still live in Mexico, to watch the game in Miami. After the final out, when Mexico booked a place among the final four teams, Luis joined him in his hotel room.
“He was super excited. He had all that adrenaline still in him,” Urías said. “He told me, ‘You should be here. I know it’s tough for you, but I’m so happy you came to share with us.’ ”
Ready for Opening Day
Hyde has remained mum on which pitcher will take the bump first on Opening Day for the Orioles, but right-hander Kyle Gibson has compiled a spring that’s likely worthy of the honor. His five shutout innings Sunday were his strongest so far this camp, striking out seven while not conceding a walk.
Gibson said his changeup was as strong as it has ever been, and he adjusted his windup slightly Sunday to make his delivery more athletic. By bending his knees more, he increased his mobility on the mound — and with it, he thinks, his performances will improve.
“I’m just in a more athletic position to start the delivery,” Gibson said. “In the past, that’s been a big help, and this time through it was the same.”
Across 14 innings this spring, the 35-year-old has allowed two runs without allowing a walk. He’s only gotten sharper as the spring has progressed.
“That’s probably the best my stuff has felt in a long time,” Gibson said.