Three more Orioles observations and surprises early in the season

The Orioles are 16 games into the 2024 season, settling into second place and confident that their best baseball is ahead of them. The division battles are slow building, with the competition so far limited to the three-game sweep in Boston. They must wait until April 29 to begin a four-game set against the Yankees before traveling to Cincinnati and D.C., and hosting the Diamondbacks.

No one should wait for more observations and surprises, the stuff that might not have been safe bets during the winter or the early days in camp. The stuff that's getting noticed.

Colton Cowser is tied for the Orioles’ home run lead.

He had sole possession until Gunnar Henderson and Cedric Mullins caught up to him last night.

Cowser needed 37 games to hit his first major league home run. He belted two that night in Boston and four over four games, including Sunday’s 422-foot blast to right-center field in the eighth inning.

The crowd isn't booing, it's mooing.

I’m pushing for a section at Camden Yards to be reserved for Cowser fans dressed in cow costumes, like the Judge’s Chambers at Yankee Stadium.

Let’s make it happen. Let’s make it a mooovement.

It was a real stretch to project Cowser as the team’s leader in home runs in the middle of April, since he had to make the club out of spring training. He didn’t have the luxury or leeway to use his at-bats to get ready and “work on things,” as they say.

Cowser’s numbers mattered. Manager Brandon Hyde can say that he doesn’t check spring stats, but somebody in the organization had to do it. A 1-for-21 wasn’t getting Cowser to Baltimore.

Striking out four times last night won’t get him sent down.

Henderson, Mullins, Anthony Santander, Ryan Mountcastle, Adley Rutschman, Heston Kjerstad. They were much safer picks to rank first in homers. Kjerstad didn’t make the Opening Day roster. Cowser beat him out.

He’s also the first Oriole this season to be chosen American League Player of the Week.

“He’s given us a huge spark and he had a heck of a week,” Hyde said yesterday. “Just from the power, the speed, the ability to use the whole field. He’s played really good defense for us. Played a really good left field in Boston, he played center field out here a couple nights ago. The ability to take a walk and understand the strike zone. I think it’s huge for him and huge for any major league hitter.

“Awesome to see him come on the scene early in the year this year and get some huge hits for us.”

Austin Hays is getting fourth outfielder treatment.

I tried to explain Cowser’s early absences from the lineup by reminding everyone that fourth outfielders usually come off the bench. The Orioles were facing a lot of left-handed starters, but also, fourth outfielders usually come off the bench.

Hays never got rolling in camp, with a stomach virus contributing to him appearing in only a dozen games and going 4-for-29. Being under the weather in Pittsburgh – and that weather would make anyone want to duck – slowed him again. Meanwhile, Cowser got hot and the Orioles began facing more right-handers.

A bloop single into right field Saturday snapped an 0-for-26 slump, but Hays was 3-for-35 with 10 strikeouts and no extra-base hits before starting in left last night. And the Twins are starting three right-handers in the series.

Cowser and Hays have switched roles. Hays is doing his best to cope, being a team-first guy, but he was an All-Star and Gold Glove finalist last summer. That’s a steep drop.

You can’t bust out from the bench.

Hays tried to do it at the plate last night, getting the assignment because Hyde wanted to rest Santander, but he went 0-for-4. He can’t catch a break, either, lining to third base in the eighth inning at 104.8 mph.

“He’s going to be fine,” executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said during Saturday’s dugout media scrum. “This is all going to work itself out and we’ll look up and everybody is going to play a lot, and Austin Hays is going to have another really good season, too.”

Keegan Akin, Danny Coulombe, Jacob Webb and Dillon Tate began last night as the bullpen setup big four.

I added “setup” in order to skip closer Craig Kimbrel, who hasn’t surrendered a run in six consecutive appearances since the blown save on April 1 and didn’t allow a baserunner in four straight before Sunday. The stuff you should expect, though a few of you did not, from a guy who's about to tie Billy Wagner for seventh on the all-time saves list.

Let’s dig below him.

Akin, Coulombe and Webb entered last night with a combined two runs and 10 hits with three walks and 26 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings. Akin had tossed eight scoreless innings with three hits, one walk and 10 strikeouts, maintaining his dominance from spring training after returning from last year’s back injury.

Being in cruise control for an entire season isn’t realistic, and Akin finally stumbled last night by allowing a single and double in the seventh after striking out Christian Vázquez. Yennier Cano replaced him and let both inherited runners score to leave Akin with a 2.16.

Life isn’t always fair, is it?

Tate, meanwhile, returned from the elbow/forearm injuries that kept him out of the majors in 2023, and his 1 1/3 scoreless innings last night lowered his ERA to 1.29 in six appearances. He entered in the fifth as Cole Irvin’s replacement and got the win.

The Orioles need coverage while Cionel Pérez is on the injured list with a strained oblique. Pérez has made one appearance this season, walking off the mound March 30 after facing two batters in the ninth.

Pérez is rehabbing down in Sarasota and that's pretty much all that we've been told. Throwing and feeling good.

OK, let's do a little more with Kimbrel.

Even if you had high hopes for him, did you think he'd begin the season with no walks and 13 strikeouts in seven innings? He's never done it in his first seven games in a season.

Kimbrel has allowed only three hits, and there's soft stuff in there.

He's been nails.

Frederick Bencosme gets off to good start at Bowie...
Mullins contributes at the plate and in the field ...

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