PHILADELPHIA — For at least the next 10 days, the Orioles will be without their Plan A and Plan B in center field.
The latest injury to impact Baltimore’s outfield is to Aaron Hicks, who was placed on the 10-day injured list Tuesday with a left hamstring strain. Hicks said he anticipates being ready to return once the 10 days are complete, but manager Brandon Hyde tempered expectations because of how fickle a hamstring injury can be.
So now, Baltimore is without its most veteran center field options.
The Orioles signed Hicks after he was released by the New York Yankees in late May as a replacement for Cedric Mullins, whose groin strain prompted him to join the injured list. In the time since, Mullins returned to the injured list this month with another groin strain. He faces an uncertain timetable, but likely will miss weeks rather than days.
With Ryan McKenna recalled from Triple-A Norfolk, the Orioles still have four outfielders, as well as several infielders who can slot into the corners if needed. As ever, Hyde is a matchup-focused lineup builder, and the four outfielders at his disposal currently allow for mixing and matching based on splits.
But with Mullins and Hicks out, there’s a clear path to steady playing time in center field for Colton Cowser, particularly against right-handed pitching. Austin Hays also has center field experience and could receive starts there, but Hyde said this will be an extended chance for one of the Orioles’ top prospects.
“Colton will probably get the bulk of the center field time while Hicks and Cedric are out,” Hyde said.
Cowser entered in center once Hicks departed Monday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies, and the rookie came through with two game-changing plays. First, he started a relay that ended with Bryce Harper out at home plate. Next, an inning later, Cowser’s RBI double scored Gunnar Henderson and gave Baltimore a lead in its 3-2 win.
McKenna largely served as a late-inning defensive replacement for the Orioles, although he hit .253 while in the majors. Hays, hitting .293, is Baltimore’s everyday left fielder, but also has two starts in center this year.
Cowser will start again in center on Tuesday. It will be his fourth start in center, matching right field for the most he’s played a position. Cowser has also started three games in left field.
The 23-year-old has gotten off to a slow start at the plate. He’s hitting .128 with a .440 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, experiencing the vast difference between Triple-A and the major leagues. For Triple-A Norfolk before his call-up, Cowser hit .330 with a .996 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.
But Cowser isn’t the first — and won’t be the last — rookie to experience growing pains during the early part of his major league career. More consistent at-bats while Hicks and Mullins are sidelined could help Cowser find his rhythm at the plate, too.
“Nobody knows what it’s like to be in the major leagues until you’re in the major leagues,” Hyde said. “That’s why everyone thinks the step from Triple-A to the big leagues is just a step — it’s not. It’s a totally different level. It’s a totally different level of play. A totally different level of pressure. And so, it’s not easy.
“To be able to handle that is part of being a major league player, so it’s not only having to perform but also be able to handle media, social media, questions regarding why things aren’t happening right,” Hyde continued. “All those types of things are challenging. Sometimes it takes a while for you to adjust and learn that. Really happy and proud of our young guys, honestly, how they’ve handled everything so far this year, because it’s not easy.”
Baltimore has relied on a roster with many inexperienced players to get to this point — in the driver’s seat for a postseason berth. Cowser isn’t alone in that.
Now Cowser could see even more steady playing time in the outfield — and, in particular, center field.