August 13, 2022

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Santander homers to extend on-base streak, leads lively offense

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NEW YORK — In baseball, April arrives full of twists. Early season results thwart expectations. Surprises emerge, seemingly out of left field.

Take the Orioles’ pitching staff, whose first-month success few predicted.

To most outside onlookers, the Orioles’ offense looked like the clear strength of the team. That hasn’t been the case, two-plus weeks through. But those trends might be beginning to reverse after Baltimore dropped its second straight slugfest, 12-8, to the Yankees on Tuesday night in the Bronx, despite a late surge from its lineup as a whole.

“We’re getting into a little better groove offensively,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We got off to a bumpy start early, and guys were pressing a little bit. You’re seeing guys relax now, and the homers are coming a little bit.”

Saddled with an early six-run hole, the Orioles were no-hit for 5 1/3 innings by Yankees righty Luis Severino before clawing back via three-run homers from Anthony Santander and Austin Hays in the late innings. But four O’s pitchers combined to cough up five Yankee homers, including three to Anthony Rizzo that all benefited from Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch.

The Orioles benefited from the stadium’s dimensions as well, notably on Santander’s 351-foot shot (expected batting average: .180) down the left-field line in the sixth inning. That did little, though, to quell the sting of Rizzo’s trifecta, which had an average expected batting average of .190. 

“It’s the same for every pitcher who steps on that mound,” said losing pitcher Jordan Lyles. “It is what it is. Rizzo is a tough at-bat. The first one, it is what it is. I threw a good pitch on the black, and he put it in the seats. The second one, he put a good swing on a changeup I wish I could have back.”

As a team the Orioles have homered in only six of 17 games this season, losing all six.

“I knew we’d start hitting some homers, which is nice,” Hyde said. “But the overall at-bats have been better.”

The exception is Santander, who has been locked in all year. Tucking his second homer of the year inside the left-field foul pole, Santander became the first player in the Majors to reach base safely in all 17 games this season. (Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner became the second Tuesday night vs. Arizona.). Santander is the first Oriole to begin a season with such a streak since Manny Machado in 2017, and he boasts a robust .431 on-base percentage.

“It’s great getting on base as much as possible,” Santander said, through team interpreter Brandon Quinones. “It’s the best way to score runs and win ball games.”

For the Orioles, it’s a welcome development from a player they’ve long hoped would grow into a more complete hitter after he emerged as a legitimate run producer during the strike-shortened 2020 season. Santander broke out with 11 homers and an .890 OPS before missing the home stretch with injury that year, then watched his production sag amid various lower-body issues in 2021.

Those ailments limited Santander to 110 games last summer, largely zapping his power and mobility. His slash line cratered to .241/.286/.433, and he morphed from a Gold Glove finalist the year before into one of the game’s worst defenders in right field (-6 outs above average).

Healthy again, staying on the field will be paramount for Santander to prove he can be the consistent run producer he has shown flashes of being. More than anything so far, it’s his plate discipline that has seen the most robust year over year improvement. The ninth-inning walk Santander drew off Aroldis Chapman marked his 14th free pass in 17 games — more than half the 23 he drew in 101 games last season. His 19.4% walk rate this year is nearly four times his career average.

“Just working really hard to understand that they’re not going to pitch me in the middle of the zone anymore,” Santander said. “They try to pitch me around the zone. For me, it’s about focusing, waiting for my pitch and letting it rip once I get it.”

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