TORONTO - Speed. Positional versatility. Microwavable offense. These are the qualities teams usually seek in a fourth outfielder.
Ryan McKenna certainly checks all those boxes. But what has made the 25-year-old such a crucial component of an Orioles team that sits just 1 ½ games out of a wild card spot has been the outfielder’s eagerness to deliver anytime, anywhere.
“When he’s not in the lineup, he’s always got his helmet ready, he’s got his glove ready, he understands his role when he’s not in there, and he’s following along,” said manager Brandon Hyde before Tuesday’s game. “He’s supporting the whole time he’s in the dugout.
“You pull for guys like that. You pull for ultimate teammates like that.”
McKenna’s contributions have become especially important as everyday outfielder Austin Hays has struggled. Hays is out of the lineup Tuesday against the Blue Jays, while McKenna, who collected the first three-hit game of his career last night, gets the start in right field.
“He’s just kind of scuffling a little bit and I want to kind of give him a little bit of a breather,” said Hyde of Hays, who’s hitting just .187 since June 28. “(McKenna) has been a huge spark for us and he’s always going to play good defense and the quality of his at-bats has been really good as of late.”
Even as the Orioles’ outfield group has expanded since August began, thanks to the additions of Brett Phillips and Terrin Vavra, McKenna has given the Orioles no reason to send him back to Triple-A Norfolk, cementing himself as an above-average defensive replacement, a spark plug off the bench and a dangerous pinch runner.
After hitting just .183 in 90 big league games in 2021, McKenna has taken dramatic steps forward at the plate in his second season, bumping his average up to .271 to go with a .719 OPS.
“He’s just grown so much as a professional,” said Hyde. “He’s more mature. Everything about him this year has been fantastic. What he’s like as a teammate, how he supports everybody around him, how he’s prepared every single game. It’s really a credit to him, the work that he’s put in, and he’s grown a lot as a player. He’s ready to play. I’ve said that a lot. The guy comes up, he’s ready to play.”
When asked for a comparison from his days with the Chicago Cubs, Hyde mentioned Tommy La Stella, who spent four years in Chicago but played more than 100 games in just one of those seasons.
“Tommy didn’t get a whole lot of starts,” said Hyde. “But when there was a pinch-hitting opportunity, you knew exactly where to find him and he was fully ready for that spot always. Always knew when to come in on a double switch. He was always going to be in the dugout, loud, supporting the guys that were playing, and Mac has done all those things.”
Meanwhile, Cedric Mullins is back in the leadoff spot for the second game of the O’s series in Toronto after being supplanted by McKenna in the series opener.
“He just never had any adversity last year,” said Hyde. “He’s having more of a normal player’s season this year, where there are some scuffles, guys are pitching him differently, he’s having to adjust to the league.
“I think he’s going to make adjustments. It’s going to be better for him long-term. He’s going to understand that not every year is going to be an easy, great year. It’s going to take time, it’s going to take work. I give Ced a ton of credit. He is hanging there. He puts an amazing amount of work in.”
Baltimore will send Dean Kremer to the hill tonight in search of a series win over their division rivals.