There’s plenty of credit to go around for the Orioles being on the cusp of a second straight winning season, from the young stars at the top of their lineup and the breakouts in their rotation to the pair of All-Stars at the back end of their bullpen.
At seemingly every point in the season, though, at least one of the group of Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, Anthony Santander and Cedric Mullins has helped carry a large portion of their offensive load. These four endured most of the Orioles lean years, but are now broadly in what’s considered a baseball player’s prime — their mid-to-late 20s, with three or four years of major league experience.
“It kind of evens everything all out,” veteran outfielder Aaron Hicks said. “When you have guys that are playing hard, consistently, every day like Haysy, Cedric, it kind of brings more of a stability to a lineup, whereas when younger guys come up they don’t have to be the best player on the team — they kind of ease into the big leagues, get their feet wet and then kind of start to get rolling and do things that they can to help win ballgames. With that, you need stability throughout a lineup that makes it work.”
It’s a lot to ask someone to be at his best the whole year, but the Orioles’ roster construction is such that those four players at or near their peaks have provided above-average production in some form or fashion throughout.
Mountcastle had an early power burst, but it was Hays who paced the Orioles’ offense in April, followed by Adley Rutschman and Mullins. Santander was on fire in May, thanks to a stretch of five straight games with a home run, but Rutschman, Hays and Mullins were all quite productive that month as well.
Mullins hit the injured list with a groin injury in June, and Mountcastle joined him with vertigo that month, but in addition to Gunnar Henderson’s breakout the Orioles’ lineup was stabilized by Hays, who continued a season that made him an All-Star with another impactful offensive month.
Santander had one of his best offensive months in July, a month where the Orioles were thankful for Ryan O’Hearn’s emergence and the continued production of Rutschman and Henderson.
August, which is shaping up to be the Orioles’ best month of the season, has been carried by the veterans. Mountcastle has been one of the game’s most impactful hitters since returning from the injured list. Hays is reversing his post All-Star Game swoon and entered Sunday’s game with an .851 OPS this month, while Santander’s power surge this week brought him to .819 in August entering Sunday.
This is the time during a six-month baseball season that can be the most trying. That the Orioles players in their prime are, by and large, leading the way speaks volumes to the growth that occurred in all of them during the lean years that helped both them and the team get to this point.
“I don’t have the same amount of energy as I did when I was 20,” Mountcastle said. “But at the same time, physically, and for the most part mentally, I’ve grown a lot, and I think that’s just the big thing with this game — mentally, going out there each and every day and being able to handle the pressures of either being on a good or bad team, but just being a Major League Baseball player. I’ve been able to handle that a lot better.”
Hicks has seen plenty of players reach this stage of their career, and knows the benefit it can have to a team trying to reach October and achieve something there. Part of that, he said, is the perspective to know how to help the team on a particular day as opposed to creating pressure and expectations to contribute in every facet of the game.
“It’s definitely hard, but I think when you’re at that point of your career, you don’t really think about it too much,” Hicks said. “You think about more of, what can I do to help this team tonight? A lot of it comes with maturity, realizing that it might just be a defensive day, where I’m helping the team win on defense, or it might be only offense. You’re going all right, but those things start to happen here and there. But it’s all about focusing on how to win games in different ways.”