Austin Hays indulged a reporter yesterday by taking inventory of his health.
“I feel really good,” he said, having unfortunately grown accustomed to the initial line of questioning. “My legs feel good, my thumb feels good, my ankle still feels good, like it did during spring training. So my body’s healthy and I’m moving in the right direction.”
This is the most important aspect of Hays’ professional life. Not the one hit in 18 at-bats through four games of his injury rehab assignment at Single-A Frederick. Not that he’s two levels below where he should be playing because of a sprained thumb suffered late in spring training.
Hays went 0-for-3 with a run scored last night in his first home game with the Keys since 2017, the year he was chosen as the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year. He says the numbers are deceiving.
“I actually feel really good right now,” he said. “I’m hitting the ball well. I’m squaring a lot of balls up, I’m not swinging at pitches out of the zone. I think I’m right where I need to be. It’s just a matter of starting to find some holes.”
And a nice run of good health and luck.
Hays had an abbreviated spring training in 2018 due to a sore shoulder and later underwent ankle surgery. He reported to camp this year fully recovered and looking exactly like the player who shot up the prospect lists, slashing .351/.385/.892 in 12 exhibition games with three doubles, a triple, five home runs and 13 RBIs.
The Orioles decided to option him to Triple-A Norfolk and allow him to continue down the development path, but he sustained the thumb injury on a stolen base attempt at minor league camp and was stalled again.
“It’s definitely frustrating, because I did work very hard in the off-season to get as healthy as I could and get in the best shape that I could, and I felt so good in the spring,” said Hays, who turns 24 in July.
“I had no shoulder issues like I did last spring training and everything felt really good, and then just some freak accident like that happens and all of a sudden you lose that routine and that schedule that you were in, and that good feeling that you had. So now I’ve just got to get back to where I was.”
The former third-round pick out of Jacksonville University still can’t quite figure out what happened. Why it happened.
“I was stealing second and I slid in head first and my thumb just hit the base,” he said. “It was nothing crazy. The same slide I’ve done a million times. For whatever reason, that one I just hit the bag wrong.”
Hays feared that the injury was much more serious.
“Yeah, after the doc saw me for the first time before I had the MRI, when he pulled it, it went pretty far, so I had thought that the ligament was torn,” he said. “So it was good to see on the MRI that it was just strained, that there was no tear.”
Hays can’t offer an exact report date to Norfolk or where he goes after Frederick.
“I just knew that I was going to come here for about a week and then I’ll see what happens from there,” he said.
“I’m just trying to get back to my routine and get into a groove like I was in spring training. Ultimately, the biggest thing is just getting into your routine and getting into that schedule of being out there and getting the at-bats and playing every day. That’s just the one thing that you can’t replace.”
In the meantime, Hays checks on the Orioles each night, and the shuffling of players on the roster.
Cedric Mullins broke camp as the starting center fielder, but they optioned him to Norfolk on April 22, after he went 6-for-64 with a .337 OPS, and selected the contract of infielder Stevie Wilkerson, who’s handling the position and, at least for now, escaping his super-utility role. Joey Rickard also remains on the roster as a center field option.
There’s no telling how quickly a healthy Hays would be given a shot. If the Orioles were determined to send him down no matter how he hit in Florida, they might be inclined to give him lots of at-bats with the Tides and maybe consider a promotion later in the summer.
He’d be in the same boat as other prospects in the organization who are waiting their turns.
“I see all the moves that are being made and I see the lineups every night, so I see what’s going on up there,” Hays said.
“I see Wilky’s playing really good right now, so I’m happy for him, getting his chance. I’m proud of him.”
Note: Cal Ripken Jr. will be at Camden Yards on Monday to sign the first 250 copies of his new book, “Just Show Up,” beginning at 7 p.m., in Legends Park next to his commemorative statue.
Ripken reflects on his life and career in the book to offer lessons for the next generation to come. Sprinkled throughout are first-hand accounts of his legendary father, Cal Ripken Sr., what it was like to keep the consecutive-games streak alive and what it meant to bring the World Series to Baltimore in 1983.
Fans can purchase the book at the Orioles Team Store on Eutaw Street or at the souvenir stand inside Gate F near the signing location.