Improved depth providing Orioles with playoff push

If Austin Hays is able to come off the injured list next week, as he’s projecting, manager Brandon Hyde will be tasked with figuring out how to occupy center field. Decisions must be made regarding Hays and Cedric Mullins, who collected two more hits last night and has been an outstanding replacement.

Whether or not Hays is back in center field on a full-time basis, he’s going to be plopped in the middle of a pennant race.

He’s been watching from the alternate camp site in Bowie, where he’s ready to play in simulated games. The Orioles were 11-8 and coming off a 15-3 loss to the Nationals that ended a six-game winning streak when Hays went on the injured list with a non-displaced fracture in his ribcage.

They won that night and lost six in a row and 11 of 13. Media that started to notice them began writing the obituaries.

And then the Orioles pulled one of those clichéd horror movie recoveries. You think they’re done and they bolt upright and go on the attack again.

“That last series we just played against the Yankees, that was big,” Hays said on Monday, before the Orioles split their two-game series with the Mets. “We get a couple wins there and get closer to .500 again. I think they’re taking the top 16 (teams), so we’re right there.”

How is it happening?

It always starts with starting pitching, but the Orioles also are more resilient than in past years. A player or two - or more - goes down and they find someone else to handle the load.

Thumbnail image for Valaika-Takes-Grounder-ST-sidebar.jpgMullins for Hays in center field. Ryan Mountcastle for Dwight Smith Jr. and others in left. DJ Stewart for Anthony Santander in right. Pat Valaika for more than half of the infield.

Key relievers are traded, beginning with left-hander Richard Bleier and continuing with Mychal Givens and Miguel Castro. Starter Tommy Milone is traded. Wade LeBlanc is lost for the season with an elbow injury. John Means goes on the injured list twice and struggles upon his return. Alex Cobb goes on the injured list and remains unavailable for unspecified reasons, though he should return later this week.

Prospects Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer are inserted in the rotation and provide quality innings and energy. Jorge López is claimed off waivers from the Royals and earns more starts, though he couldn’t complete the fifth last night.

“Our ability this year to have some depth that we haven’t had the last couple years, where somebody goes down or somebody gets traded, a young guys gets an opportunity and is really making the most of it,” Hays said.

“Santander went down, DJ came back up and he’s hit (five) homers. Our ability to just find someone else to come in and fill the void has been great this year. It just shows you the depth we have in our system.”

The Orioles have more streaks than a poor paint job. The winning and losing kind. But there’s something different about their current run.

“The energy,” said third baseman Rio Ruiz. “Just the energy in the clubhouse and the energy throughout the day is just up and we look to continue that throughout these last two weeks of September.”

Infusions have come from Mountcastle, Stewart, Akin and Kremer. Three of them making their major league debuts and the other looking like a changed player after a stint at the alternate camp site in Bowie.

“I think it started in September, the first day of September,” Ruiz said. “These guys come up and they bring more energy and it’s fun to build on, man. You see guys doing well, you see Mounty swinging the beat well and you just want to continue that. And DJ coming up, too, and getting some big homers, that’s huge.”

Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias was a Zoom guest yesterday on MLB Network’s “High Heat” with Chris Russo, who delivers questions like a tennis ball machine. Elias returned each one, including whether he imagined after the 60-game schedule was announced that the Orioles could contend and whether he treated a shortened season as an opportunity to do so.

“Well, I think in the back of our minds, we knew that this is a scenario that could play out. We wanted to be open to it and we wanted to communicate to the team that we were trying to win,” Elias said.

“Brandon Hyde and his staff have done such a good job of doing that on a nightly basis while also keeping the message going that we’re in transition as an organization and we’re still focusing on adding to our talent pipeline in the minor and major leagues, and we’d be cycling some guys out and cycling some new players in. But we wanted to give an effort every night.”

Elias mentioned the young talent that was on the horizon - Mountcastle and Akin at Triple-A, Kremer at Double-A, Santander moving up from Triple-A to the majors last summer.

“You kind of knew there was a wave coming,” he said, “and so far these guys have really gelled and they’re ready for the next 20 games.”

Has this year’s success changed the offseason agenda?

Elias talked about the benefit of seeing guys like Mountcastle, Akin and Kremer, who are meeting the lofty expectations, “and we know there’s more on the way.”

“We have the No. 8-ranked farm system right now and I think the past several drafts have been really good, dating back to before when I got in,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of players coming and we’re keeping an eye on that. I think it’s going to be a really strange off-season for the entire industry, but we’re focused on graduating some more of these players up here and we’ll certainly look to buttress and bolster this team around this emerging young core, just like we did this offseason bringing in José Iglesias, who’s been huge for us.”

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