The O's improved play in Toronto and Gunnar Henderson's strong start

Where just a few years ago the Orioles went winless for an entire season at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, the improved 2022 Orioles have tied one four-game series there and won a three-game series.

These are not the 2018 Orioles, who went 0-9 in Toronto and that included losses by 10, six and six runs.

But it didn’t start well for these O’s at Rogers Centre. They didn’t play there until June 13 and then lost the opener of a four-game series by an 11-1 score. It seemed then like same old, same old for the Birds north of the border.

But the next night, Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays homered as the Orioles picked up a big 6-5 win and the following game was a walk-off win for Toronto. But the O’s would split that four-game series when they hammered former Oriole Kevin Gausman for seven runs (five earned) in 2 1/3 innings, his shortest outing of the year.

When the Orioles returned to Rogers Centre last month they won the first two games of that series 7-3 and 4-2 before a loss by 6-1 which kept them from a three-game sweep.

So the Birds are 4-3 this season in Toronto after going 4-13 in 2020 and 2021 combined in Buffalo/Toronto. And they have a combined mark in road games versus Toronto of 9-26 from 2018-2021 and now 4-3.

Toronto has outscored the Orioles 36-35 this year in Rogers Centre games and the O’s team batting line in the seven games is modest at .215/.277/.392/.669. But the club has hit .275 (14-for-51) with runners in scoring position in those games with 23 extra-base hits – 13 doubles, a triple and nine home runs.

Gunnar’s strong start: Gunnar Henderson’s 4-for-9 series in Washington with five RBIs and his four-RBI night Wednesday was to say the least, impressive. And so is his 14-game start at the plate a couple of weeks into his big league career.

Perhaps it is even more impressive when he is compared to top Rookie of the Year candidates Adley Rutschman and Julio Rodriguez of Seattle and how they fared in their first 14 MLB games.

Henderson: .320/.370/.520/.890 with seven extra base hits, nine RBIs, four walks and 11 strikeouts.

Rutschman: .146/.230/.200/.430 with two extra-base hits, no RBIs, four walks and 15 strikeouts.

Rodriguez:  .192/.263/.250/.513 with three extra-base hits, five RBIs, five walks and 24 strikeouts.

Henderson has shown poise beyond his 21 years in addition to plus defense, nice range and a big, big arm. He told us at media day this year at Double-A Bowie how he worked hitting foam baseballs this spring to improve his plate discipline and get to pitches better at the top of the zone. Then he went out and raked in the Eastern League, hit for the cycle in the International League, made the Futures Game and now is taking the American League by storm.

His combination of poise and calm out there with his massive talent and a strong work ethic, led to his ascension to become the No. 1 prospect in MLB. Then he got to Baltimore and has looked every bit the part.

O’s fans must have pleasant dreams about watching Rutschman and Henderson in the batting order for oh say, the next 10 years or so.

An elite talent pipeline indeed.

When this season began, Henderson was rated as baseball's No. 57 prospect by Baseball America, No. 64 via, No. 66 by, No. 73 via The Athletic and No. 96 on ESPN.

Then he made the improvements he sought and told us about back in April in Bowie and he rose to the top of the charts.

“Some stuff I said to them (coaches during spring training) that I wanted to work on is flattening out (my swing) just a touch to eliminate some of the miss and foul balls in a sense that I know I should be hitting,” Henderson said in that interview at Prince George’s Stadium. “One big thing for me was hitting foam balls off the machine that had good ride to them. Felt that was a really good help. It over-exaggerates, but it helps. The second thing was just being a little more adjustable and not so stiff (in his batting stance), letting my body do the work, so I kind of loosened up. Just relax everything, not trying to be a robot in a sense.

“I have natural loft in my swing, so just flatten out a touch. And having more contact (ability) at the top of the zone.”

Henderson checked those boxes and his already strong offense then got even better. He matured more into his body as well and we are seeing a special talent now doing special things.

He hit the ground running this year and posted an .885 OPS in April with Bowie, and then really turned it up weeks later, posting a 1.079 OPS in May. On June 28 he hit for the cycle for Norfolk, one day before his 21st birthday. 

Before he played in the Futures Game in July, I asked O’s director of player development Matt Blood if Henderson’s plate discipline improvements represented his biggest gains this year?

“Yes, that and the ability to make contact on some pitches in some areas that he struggled with in the past,” Blood told me then. “He has taken it very seriously and this is something we emphasize throughout the minor leagues and something we train on every single day and he’s taken it to heart. He’s worked very hard on learning to identify the right pitches to hit and right pitches to lay off. Nice to see it paying off in performance.

“And he has worked very hard on his swing and his swing path and how he enters the zone and making himself more able to square up more pitches and it’s showing in his contact rates. He has improved his entry into the zone which is giving him a better chance to get the barrel to more pitches. More different types of pitches too.”

The Orioles have repeatedly indicated they look at Gunnar and still see a future shortstop.

“Great athlete with instincts, range, arm strength and good hands. A premium defensive player,” said Blood.

So the organization believes he can play MLB-caliber defense at short?

“He is a shortstop,” Blood said simply in that mid-year interview.

When I talked to Triple-A Norfolk manager Buck Britton about Henderson for that July article, he told me Henderson would be a great rep for the Orioles in the Futures Game. And because he would bring more than just his talent to Los Angeles.

“The on-field skills aside – this guy has a chance to be a special player – the human being that’s about to show up to that Futures Game, people will be impressed with that. He is so polite, I have to tell him to stop calling me sir. He’s the whole package as a teammate and person,” Britton said.

Aberdeen wins: Hi Single-A Aberdeen beat Brooklyn 6-1 last night at Ripken Stadium to even that South Atlantic League playoff series at a win each. Aberdeen will host the third and deciding game tonight.

This was the first playoff win in IronBirds history.

TT Bowens hit a two-run shot in the first inning to get the offense started and Aberdeen also got RBIs from Heston Kjerstad, Jud Fabian, Max Wagner and Billy Cook. 

On the mound right-handers Peter Van Loon and Connor Gillaspie combined on a four-hitter with 11 strikeouts. 

Coby Mayo hit a grand slam and drove in six runs as Double-A Bowie beat Akron 10-1 to improve to 40-26 in the second half.

Triple-A Norfolk beat Charlotte 14-6 as Robert Neustrom hit two homers and drove in six runs. Norfolk has scored 10 or more runs three straight games for the first time since July 30-Aug. 1, 1995. The Tides are 15-4 the last 19 games. 



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