BOWIE – In the bottom of the fifth inning on June 2, Austin Hays looked for the right pitch at the right time.
Facing a full count against Hartford Yard Goats pitcher Ty Culbreth, the Daytona Beach, Florida native crushed a deep hit to left center field. The ball sailed over the outfield wall for a solo home run for the Bowie Baysox. For Hayes, the hit was another reminder of how good it feels to play baseball again.
“It has been a tough past year-and-a-half, and it’s not how you would draw it up,” Hays said. “But it is part of the game and part of the learning experience; everybody through injuries and goes through failures. To be able to go through everything and come back and see that I can still play well, even after going through everything that happens to me means a lot to me.”
After missing the majority of the 2018 season with a right ankle injury, Hays’ slow return has made him a fixture in a resurgent Bowie Baysox lineup. His two home runs against the Yard Goats were pivotal to Bowie’s 5-2 victory, which held off a three-game series sweep and ended a seven-game losing streak.
Hays struggled with injuries all last season, culminating in a season-ending ankle surgery in August. This year, his hitting performances have improved, especially since his return to Bowie after a quick stint with the Frederick Keys. In 10 games for the Baysox, Hays contributed 12 hits with three home runs and nine RBIs.
Manager Buck Britton said the outfielder is slowly getting back to the level that earned him a call-up to the Baltimore Orioles one year after being drafted in 2017.
“The guy is a really good baseball player,” Britton said. “What you are seeing now is a guy getting comfortable after a long layoff from that injury and it is very good to see.”
Coming into Sunday’s contest, the Baysox (20-35) had lost seven straight games against the Yard Goats (32-23).
Early first inning hitting made a Hartford win seem inevitable, starting with infielder Alan Trejo’s single into center field. Hartford’s Colton Welker, who was on second base, ran straight home to score the game’s first run.
As the Baysox looked poised to finish the first inning with a groundout, third baseman Jesmuel Valentin’s throwing error to first base allowed Trejo to score and give Hartford a two-run lead.
The Baysox responded right away in the bottom of the first, with center fielder Ryan McKenna’s double down the left field foul line. Hays would follow up with a booming shot over the left field wall for a two-run home run to tie the game.
Outfielder T.J. Nichting connected with a double to start the bottom of the fourth inning. Catcher Brett Cumberland followed with a floating hit to left center field that reached the outfield wall. Nichting ran all the way home to give Bowie their first lead.
After Hays’ solo home run in the fifth, Bowie continued getting on base with an Ademar Rifaela’s single and a Rylan Bannon walk. The Yard Goats made a pitching change before the next batter, taking off Culbreth for left-hander Mitch Horacek. However, he did not get a chance to close out the inning as Nichting hit an RBI single down left field, driving in Rifaela to give Bowie a three-run lead.
Meanwhile, left-handed pitcher Alex Wells bounced back from his tough first inning to pitch six and 2/3 shutout innings, surrendering six hits and allowing one earned run. He threw 64 strikes and struck out three batters. The Australian starting pitcher improved his ERA to a 1.62 following Bowie’s win, putting himself tied for second-lowest in the league.
“I knew they were an aggressive team after watching the previous two games,” Wells said. “But I stuck with my game plan and went out there and pitched aggressively and I got out of there with a win… Knowing I had a couple of runs, there made it a lot easier for me to attack the zone and attack their hitters.”
“They have been giving us a chance in every single ballgame,” Hays said about the starting pitching. “It is good that we got another quality start today and we found them the run support they needed, and we picked up the win.”
Even though Bowie’s bats cooled off in the later innings, their pitchers kept Hartford scoreless as Tyler Erwin earned his sixth save of the season in the win.
While the victory avoids a sweep, Britton said it was good to have the hitting match the same level of intensity with as starting pitching. As Bowie prepares for a six-game road trip, it will be crucial to continue that positive trend.
“Our starting pitching has been great,” Britton said. “To finally give our guy some run support and to pitch out there with a lead is good…but we don’t do a good enough job with runners in scoring position, guys on third base with less than two outs. We have to do better than that, and we are going to continue emphasizing to these guys because it is still important.”