Had things gone differently in the American League Division Series, the bruise by Gunnar Henderson’s right eye might have felt more like a badge of honor.
If there’s one moment worth remembering from this Orioles postseason, the 22-year-old provided it: sliding home in the first inning of Game 2 against a lunging Jonah Heim. His helmet came off and bounced back in his face, but Henderson, seizing the moment in the eye of Camden Yards pandemonium, screamed in celebration and pumped his fists from his knees.
Henderson has played just barely over a full season for Baltimore, and we already know what to expect from him: power from his bat, nimbleness from his glove and unbeatable hustle on the basepaths. Arguably the best part of the Orioles’ disappointing three-game sweep out of the postseason is that they saw their budding young star can rise to the stage in the playoffs.
Beyond the black eye, it was clear Henderson was taking the sudden end of his postseason debut hard. He was one of the Orioles who stayed at the railing, watching the Texas Rangers’ raucous celebration on the field after Game 3.
After hitting 6-for-12 with a homer in the series, Henderson more or less shrugged about it. “Much rather have won. But I guess it was pretty cool.”
There will undoubtedly be an exhaustive organizational postmortem for how the Orioles can perform better in the playoffs in future seasons. On that list is getting more hitters who show up in the fall, getting more consistency from their young starting pitchers and probably a fair amount of overhaul in the bullpen now that Félix Bautista is out for the next year.
But in Henderson the Orioles seem to have found not only a regular-season star but a postseason performer.
“He can run, has power, really good at-bats,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “So he’s a really exciting player, 22 years old. Has a huge future ahead of him. He’s given a ton of energy at the top of the lineup since he’s been there.”
It was not an effortless start, however. Henderson’s Game 1 performance was muted, like many other of the Orioles’ younger players. It wasn’t until his fifth at-bat in the ninth inning that Henderson finally got on base — only to get caught stealing in the botched hit-and-run that snuffed Baltimore’s last best chance.
“The first game is the hardest going to the postseason,” outfielder Aaron Hicks said of the young players in the series. “You’re the most nervous you’ve ever been. You’re the most excited you’ve ever been.”
Henderson only seemed to warm up the more at-bats he got. His homer in Game 2 was a sign of life when the Orioles were searching for a pulse. In Game 3, he managed to get three base hits, including two off the otherwise untouchable Nathan Eovaldi, and he drove in the only run of the evening for the moribund Orioles.
Anthony Santander, Jorge Mateo and Hicks also had their moments in the series, but as the youngest of all of them, Henderson appears to be someone who could anchor Orioles lineups in the postseason appearances to come. While general manager Mike Elias acknowledged the club puts more weight into the regular season when evaluating player performance, he did give Henderson a nod for his strong series.
“If he had gone 0-fer, I wouldn’t think any less of him,” Elias said at his end-of-season press conference Thursday. “But everything he does at his age, and the way he does it, it’s a treat to watch for me as somebody who has been watching baseball my whole life.”
In the big picture, there are many signs that point to the potential Henderson could still tap into. His hitting metrics ranked in the 90th percentile this season in percentage of hard-hit balls (52%) and average exit velocity (92 mph). As a baserunner, he was one of the most aggressive at seizing “advance” opportunities. That promise, combined with his production and steady glove in the field, has made him the presumptive American League Rookie of the Year. Not surprisingly, he was voted the Most Valuable Oriole.
He also owned the losses as well as anyone in the clubhouse, facing the media after the season’s toughest moments. He’s one of the most accountable players on the roster.
We’ll see exactly if Henderson becomes the more permanent third baseman — fast-rising Jackson Holliday may be the Orioles’ shortstop of the future. That’s the position he’s played the most. But the Rangers themselves, with Corey Seager as their star shortstop, show the upside of having a middle infielder who is a threat to go deep in any at-bat.
Henderson’s bruise will heal soon; his pride after that series might heal a little more slowly. But, if anything, it’s evidence that one of the Orioles’ foundational players really is ready to lay it all out there when the games matter most.