OAKLAND, Calif. — At this point a year ago, Austin Hays was headed for his first All-Star Game as the American League’s starting center fielder. He was producing as potently as he ever had in his career.

The next 12 months haven’t been as steady for Hays. He finished the 2023 season hitting .228 during the second half of the year and opened the 2024 campaign on a slide that left him with a sub-.200 average at the end of May.

As a result, Hays is no longer an everyday outfielder for the Orioles. But, with a start on his birthday against Oakland Athletics left-hander Hogan Harris, he’s showing his value as a platoon option. The 29-year-old Hays recorded three hits, with two of them coming against the southpaw, in Baltimore’s series-opening 3-2 win at the Coliseum.

With those two knocks, Hays is hitting 19-for-52 (.365) with a .949 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against left-handers this season. Since the start of June, Hays is also batting .375 overall. The two figures show manager Brandon Hyde’s patience was prudent, but they also reinforce that Hays’ best usage might be in these matchups.

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“Being a pro right now,” Hyde said. “He wants to play, and he’s doing a great job of staying ready. He’s a really good player. Started the All-Star Game last year. And I appreciate his patience and I appreciate how he’s handled everything this season. He’s playing his butt off every time he gets the opportunity, and he showed it today.”

With a glut of left-handed-hitting outfielders, the right-handed Hays could be a critical piece in the lineup on nights against southpaws, as the Orioles look to avoid the kind of shutdown performances the Texas Rangers’ left-handers spun on them in a postseason sweep last year.

With the less-regular playing time, Hays has stayed ready by facing a pitching machine set up on the mound before regular coach-thrown batting practice begins. The machine simulates pitch movements from 60 feet, six inches.

“Just trying to do as much game-related things as I can — fastball-breaking ball mix off arms and hitting a lot of machine on the field,” Hays said. “I haven’t done that a ton in the past. Trying to utilize, even when we’re on the road, anytime the field’s open to be able to use that machine just to see really realistic shapes that I’m going to see in the game with baseballs on the field and see the ball flight. I think that’s been helping a lot.”

Still, his splits are pronounced. For as strong as he’s been against lefties, Hays has a .190 average and .590 OPS against right-handers. And he did much of his damage against a southpaw in the series opener.

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Hays drove two doubles and a single, and the first of those two-baggers plated Jordan Westburg in the second inning. Hays later scored the third Orioles run when Harris walked Adley Rutschman with the bases loaded. Gunnar Henderson opened the scoring in the first when he stole third and strode home via a throwing error.

Orioles second baseman Jorge Mateo slides to field a ball hit by Shea Langeliers of the Athletics. (Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

The Orioles didn’t add on after that, however. They left the bases loaded in the top of the ninth and left nine runners on base during the win. Those missed opportunities placed the bullpen under stress late in the game.

Oakland threatened in the eighth against right-hander Yennier Cano — a runner reached third with one out. Cano struck out the next batter, and Westburg made a strong running play to throw out Brent Rooker on a weak chopper — “a game-saving type of play,” Hyde said.

Right-hander Craig Kimbrel then entered in another one-run game, and he mowed through three batters to secure a close win in Oakland. Since beginning the year 0-for-4 when entering with a one-run lead, Kimbrel has converted three straight saves in those situations.

“He’s Craig Kimbrel,” Hays said. “He’s doing what he’s done for 14 years in the big leagues, and it’s still lightning, electric stuff. I’m glad I’m not in the box.”

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Hyde quickly pointed out the missed opportunities to add to their lead, which made the pitching equation more perilous.

It appeared as though Baltimore might chase Harris early. His pitch count inflated with 41 offerings in the second inning, but he escaped with only two runs against him. That allowed him to complete five innings, and behind him Oakland’s bullpen allowed one hit in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. With runners on against left-hander Scott Alexander in the ninth, the Orioles didn’t score.

“We had traffic,” Hyde said. “That game should have been blown open early in the game, unfortunately. Then we squandered that situation there in the top of the ninth. We’re getting guys on. We’re just not getting the big hits right now to break games open.”

The game grew even closer after Shea Langeliers homered off right-hander Albert Suárez to begin the seventh. Suárez completed six innings for the second straight start. He worked around Miguel Andujar’s first-inning homer to retire 12 straight batters in the middle innings.

Suárez has found increased success over his last two outings with his curveball. He forced three of his eight whiffs with that pitch, although his four-seam fastball remained Suárez’s go-to offering.

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Pitching in the Bay Area was special for Suárez. He made his major league debut for the San Francisco Giants in 2016, but it wasn’t until Friday that he would earn the win as the starting pitcher in this region. In those eight years, Suárez has traveled the globe, pitching in Korea and Japan, as well as his native Venezuela, waiting for an opportunity like the one he’s receiving now.

When the Orioles landed and drove past the Giants’ Oracle Park on Thursday night, Suárez remarked that it “was like my last home.”

“Being back here is something that brings a lot of memories, a lot of good memories,” Suárez said. “So I’m just happy for it.”

Hays was also happy to be in the starting lineup for the second time in July. He’s not playing as frequently, but on Friday he produced.

“That’s a good birthday present to myself right there,” Hays said. “A couple doubles and a nice lucky knock and a win.”