ANAHEIM, Calif. — Every ball Austin Hays hit Wednesday seemed to leap off his bat with a crack that cut through the distracted babble of a tepid Angel Stadium crowd. Most of his hacks drew an audible intake of breath from those fans as the ball sailed at 100-mph or faster toward the outfield grass — or the outfield seats.
His last swing punctuated his evening.
Hays turned on a slider left up in the zone from right-hander Jaime Barria, lashing it just over the left-field wall for his fourth and final hit. The solo shot in the eighth inning completed a lopsided Orioles win over the Los Angeles Angels, 10-3, and capped Hays’ best offensive performance of the second half.
The threat of another post-break slump for Hays came into full view in the 17 games he played in after the All-Star game. Just like in 2022, when a hot start gave way to a cool finish, Hays’ average of .314 entering the break quickly dropped.
He went on to hit .145 through the rest of July, a 17-game span in which he struck out 17 times and drew only three walks. But going through it last year has helped Hays avoid the same fate. He picked up earlier on some cues from his swing, such as an increased tendency to roll over on pull-side grounders.
“It was good for me, because I learned what I needed to do to combat that and fix it,” Hays said. “I had a good month last month, and so far, having a good month this month.”
Since the calendar flipped to August, Hays has pushed thoughts of another second-half slump to the side. Including his 4-for-4 performance with four RBIs in the Orioles’ sweep-clinching win against the Angels, Hays is hitting .301 in his last 28 games.
He missed a few games with a hip pointer, and with his fastball timing off, he made poor swing decisions against breaking balls, trying — and missing — against pitches he could more easily catch up to. Once he regained his timing on the fastball, his results turned around.
“I started hitting balls harder again,” Hyde said. “That’s usually a recipe for success when you’re laying off pitches out of the zone, waiting out the pitcher and just barreling balls on a line.”
Hays paced Baltimore’s offense to a comfortable victory that ensures it keeps pace 3.5 games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East. At 88-51, the Orioles’ are 37 games above .500 this late in a season for the first time since 1997.
Hays wasn’t alone, however.
The Orioles gave right-hander Kyle Gibson ample run support out of the gate, adding to a run in the second with a four-run third inning. Hays and Hicks combined to drive in those four runs before Anthony Santander plated another runner in the sixth. The only out of Hays’ night came in the sixth — but it still came in the form of a sacrifice fly.
And by the eighth, Santander’s two-run homer preceded Hays’ solo shot — just the second time the Orioles have hit back-to-back homers this year.
“Hats off to the offense,” Gibson said. “Everybody knows we have a long flight ahead of us [to Boston], and they did a really good job of getting the lead and giving the pitching staff a chance to work.”
Gibson could be pitching for his place in the postseason rotation. Entering Wednesday, he allowed 26 runs in his five August starts, saddling him with a 7.89 ERA that month. Meanwhile, Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez and Dean Kremer have seemingly solidified their places in what will likely be a four-man rotation come October.
But the entire rotation is in flux. Manager Brandon Hyde said before Wednesday’s game that the Orioles are momentarily moving away from their six-man rotation — used to preserve inning counts for many of their young arms — back to a five-man mix. They’ll skip left-hander Cole Irvin’s start and have him pitch out of the bullpen as a long reliever for the time being.
With no game Thursday, Baltimore can alter its rotation to better prepare for an upcoming four-game series late next week against the Rays. There’s also the impending return of left-hander John Means to factor in. The southpaw pitched in his final rehab game for Triple-A Norfolk on Wednesday, allowing three runs in five innings.
“You do try to give yourself the best opportunity,” Hyde said of altering his rotation. “When the season’s coming to the last 20-plus games or so, you start looking ahead a little bit, try to line your guys up the best you possibly can.”
Gibson’s August might’ve left him on the outside looking in at a playoff start, similar to how it went last season for him with the Phillies. In Philadelphia, Gibson’s late-season struggles relegated him to a little-used bullpen role come the postseason.
This week, Gibson said he took a “deep dive” into his recent results to discern what might help him out of a rut. He focused on getting ahead in the count and placing pitches on the corners of the strike zone more frequently.
“Going through a lot of different stuff,” Gibson said. “You guys would look at this sheet and call me crazy.”
Crazy or not, it seemed to help. Gibson rebounded well enough in Wednesday’s win.
Gibson allowed a two-run homer to Luis Rengifo in the third inning, but several well-timed double plays helped Gibson avoid damage elsewhere. The Orioles turned three double plays for Gibson in the first five innings, including one in the third that prevented Rengifo from hitting a homer with more runners on base.
The 35-year-old’s quality start got him back on track from a seven-run disaster against the Chicago White Sox on his previous appearance. With it, the Orioles lead the majors with 43 quality starts since June 1, according to MLB.com.
When the offense hasn’t produced, the pitching staff has often made up for it. And on nights such as Wednesday when the offense and pitching click together — with Hays the major catalyst — the Orioles are tough to match.