Hays proud that pain didn't lead to prolonged absences

Austin Hays won’t remember the 2022 season from a personal standpoint as one of his healthiest as a professional. He played through the pain. In his hand, wrist and oblique. But what’s important here is that he played.

Hays appeared in his 132nd game Wednesday night, the most in his major league career. An achievement that didn’t draw much attention but meant so much to the outfielder.

Thirteen remain on the schedule. Hays can see the finish line and feel proud that he didn’t stumble again and land on the injured list.

“To get to that point with a couple weeks left in the season, that means a lot to me,” he said. “I should end the year with over 140 games, and not going on the IL, that was a huge focus for me.”

“I think proving that you’re durable is a huge thing for a player,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “Knowing that a guy’s going to be available every day, that’s a lost skill, honestly. “All of our guys, really, this year have done a great job of staying in shape and staying ready.

“Give Austin a lot of credit for having a tough couple years, a lot of freak kind of accidents. But to be able to stay healthy up to this point is a credit to him.”

The litany of body breakdowns that hounded Hays since his minor league days didn’t exit his life.

Cardinals pitcher Génesis Cabrera stepped on his left hand during a May 12 game in St. Louis, creating deep lacerations and forcing Hays for the first time to wear a batting glove as protection. The sprained right wrist occurred on June 23 after Hays made a sensational diving catch along the right field line at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, and he was hit by a pitch on July 4 to compound the injury. Hays noticed some tightness in his left oblique on Aug. 2 that required treatment and cost him four games.

All of it uncomfortable at his mildest points. None of it leading to absences of 15 days or more.

Blame for the dwindling returns from his at-bats lies at least partially with it.

Hays hit .293/.377/.467 in April and .299/.355/.443 in May. He dipped to .250/.284/.510 in June - though he also had six home runs and 23 RBIs for his highest totals in any month - .202/.269/.298 in July and .213/.250/.388 in August.

Excluded from the lineup last night, Hays was 11-for-50 (.220) with no home runs in September. But he also drew seven walks and had hits in six of his seven starts, including back-to-back multi-hit games.

“I think that’s all part of the long season,” Hays said. “For me, just learning how to do that as a big leaguer and play through things that, you’re not 100 percent, but you’re still able to play, you know? Just learning how to deal with those things, like the oblique thing earlier in the year. Just being able to show up and do what I need to do to prepare for the game, but not overwork my body when I’m going through those tough parts of the year where I’m banged up. That’s all part of the learning process.

 “I think part of some of the rough stretches I had this year was dealing with certain injuries. Like, I had the wrist thing and the oblique thing, but I still want to go out there and play. I can contribute. Just still learning how to go through those things. When you’re younger, you’re in the minor leagues and you’re a prospect and you’re dealing with stuff like that, I think it’s pushed to go on the IL, but at this point in my career it’s really important to just make sure that I’m out there for my team every night if I’m capable.

“I also think part of it is it’s just a hard game and it’s a hard league, and pitchers adjusted to certain things I was doing well at the beginning of the year, but there were parts of the year where I had to adjust some things I was doing, and some mechanical things, because of some of the stuff I was playing with, so I might have created some bad habits doing that, but at the end of the day I think it was worth it to be out there on the field and be in the games.”

Hays alluded to those habits during a July 13 interview at his locker, as he kept finding ways to compensate for the wrist soreness. He was in a 3-for-42 slump.

“It feels good enough to go out there and play,” he said. “It’s painful to do some of my drill work. I’ve had to switch up some of my routines in the cage, like my top-hand drill that I normally do, but I’m still able to swing with two hands, and it feels a lot better when I do a one-hand finish. Earlier in the year, I was doing a two-hand finish.

“I’ve had to change up a couple things, but I still feel like I’m able to go out there and compete, swing.”

The gruesome cuts on his hand didn’t have the same negative impact. Hays was 12-for-21 before arriving in St. Louis, went 3-for-4 on May 18 against the Yankees at Camden Yards and built a 13-game hitting streak that ended on June 3.

“Somehow I was able to go through a really hot stretch when I had the hand stepped on,” he said. “I was wearing the batting glove with stitches in my fingers and my hand looked like it got bit by a rattlesnake. But I put the batting glove on, put some tape on, I had some thing on my pinky, and I actually hit really well. I had a good stretch in New York and Toronto, and here at home. I had a pretty long hitting streak with that batting glove.”

It didn’t belong to Hays, of course. Why would he own one if he never intended to use it?

“(Chris) Owings ended up taking it from me and getting it authenticated because that was his batting glove that he gave me to use,” Hays said, “so I thought that was funny that he took it to be authenticated.”

Players are known to be superstitious. Managers, too, with Hyde following the same path through the interview room – up the middle between the rows of chairs rather than going around the right side – after the Orioles defeated the Tigers. Any temptation from Hays to break out another batting glove during those cold spells at the plate?

“I’d say when I went through the really, really rough stretch a couple weeks ago, I was like, ‘Dang, maybe I should throw a batting glove on,’” he said, laughing. “But no, I’ll stick with no glove. That’s my thing.”

The new normal for Hays, he hopes, is being a rock in the lineup. Perhaps slowed at times but able to get rolling again.

“I had the hand thing and I dove for a ball in Chicago and sprained my wrist. I was able to play through that. I had the oblique thing that took me out for about four or five games. Was able to avoid the IL. It’s all part of it,” Hays said.

“It’s a tough game, it’s a long season. You just get through those low points and keep playing hard and focus on what you can control. Keep grinding with my teammates.”

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