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Through up and down season, Jonathan Villar’s leadership stands out for Orioles

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Whether playing shortstop or second base or batting wherever in the lineup, Villar has filled whatever hole was needed in Baltimore.

Baltimore Orioles v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

The Orioles were seemingly on their way to their most agonizing loss of the season. They had taken an 8-5 lead in the 15th inning against the Angels in Anaheim, only to see that lead erased in a matter of moments. The score went to 8-8, the O’s had to stomach the thought of playing even more baseball in the witching hour, and it felt like just a matter of time until an offering from a Baltimore pitcher ended up in the seats and that would be that.

Well, that did happen — sort of. It happened to the other team. With two outs and one on in the top of the 16th, Jonathan Villar turned on a Griffin Canning pitch, lined it over the wall in right field, and put the Orioles up 10-8. This time, the lead held, and the Orioles instead came away a win to remember in a season to forget.

The numbers didn’t suggest that would happen. Villar had been 0-for-his-last-15 going into the night.

But in a season in which he’s done whatever has been asked or needed of him, Villar came through again.

Statistically, Villar has hardly been a superstar. His average was languishing in the .240s before a recent hot stretch got it to .262 entering Monday night’s game in San Diego. His defensive rating is at a minus-0.3, suggesting he’s a below average player in the field. His on-base percentage is .326, not ideal for a leadoff man. His OPS is .746, not ideal for a middle of the order bat.

But a lot of these observations were made about Nick Markakis 5-10 years ago. And as was the case with Markakis, it’s hard to watch an Orioles game and not see Villar contributing an element no one else provides. Just as no Oriole then had Markakis’s plate discipline, no Oriole now has Villar’s speed, or his ability to use it, and Baltimore reaches another gear when Villar is playing well.

This past Angels series was a perfect example. Villar broke out of his slump to go 10-for-18 in the four games, but he also stole five bases, and his threat on the basepaths by itself fueled Baltimore rallies. He got on base 13 times and scored nine runs, and the Orioles scored 31 runs altogether. It wasn’t a coincidence.

But obvious as his talents are, Villar’s greatest contribution this year has perhaps been intangible. The Orioles came into the spring a restructured team in need of a leader, and from an outside perspective, it seems Villar has been that. He may not be a tenured veteran with several All-Star Games under his belt, but Villar was by default an elder statesman in this lineup when this season began, and it would have made sense had he started griping about an ever-changing position and lineup spot.

Instead, Villar has willingly stepped in as manager Brandon Hyde’s flex option.

Start with his place in the batting order. Entering Monday, Villar had accumulated 453 plate appearances, good for eighth in the American League. Of the seven players above him, only one — Boston’s Rafael Devers — has played more than six games in five different spots in the lineup, as Villar has.

But even then, there’s a distinction. The Red Sox weren’t sure what they had in Devers, and once he revealed himself to be a star in the making he settled into the No. 2 spot, where he’s spent the last 26 games. Villar has spent 20 of the last 24 games at leadoff, but he’s also slid to fifth twice, sixth once and seventh once. This allows Hyde to give hot players more at-bats or take the heat off of struggling players.

That’s not always easy for ballplayers, who are the ultimate creatures of habit, but Villar’s moved up and down the lineup without so much as a word.

It’s been the same story in the field. Villar hasn’t gotten over 60 percent of the starts at any one position, beginning 61 games at second base, 40 at shortstop and one at designated hitter. He’s only started at the same position four games in a row four times, and has never been able to settle at one position for five starts in a row.

It’s a little thing — it’s not like Villar plays second on Friday, center on Saturday and catches Sunday — but it allows Hyde to mix and match his lineup. Where Villar goes can determine whether Richie Martin plays, or Hanser Alberto plays, or Renato Nunez (to a lesser extent) plays. It also speaks again to Villar’s valuable versatility and his ability to be flexible and go back and forth between two positions that, while similar, have enough key differences between them.

This suggests a “lead by example” style, but Villar has shown a more demonstrative side. He’s one of the team’s more animated players, and he plays with an intensity that can rub off on others, particularly the more impressionable youngsters the Orioles have.

Watching Villar react to plays on the field, you can get the sense that Baltimore is 70-35, not the other way around. He never takes a play off on the basepaths. It’s common to see him implore the dugout to follow his lead after getting a hit late in a game the O’s are losing, or fire up his teammates after scoring a tying run like he did back in June against Boston. These are always good things for a team that isn’t winning yet, but just might start soon enough, to see.

Whether this will continue — in Baltimore, in particular — remains to be seen. Villar could be dealt at the deadline, and his value has only risen with his effort on this current West Coast trip. If he’s traded, it’s probably a good move for the team. As has been said many times this season, the present isn’t important, the future is. And any move that helps the future should be made. If that means Villar leaves for a prospect, then that’s what it means.

But make no mistake, the Orioles would lose someone valuable if they pull the trigger on a move. It’s been just under a year since Villar arrived in Baltimore, but it’s hard to overlook the effect he has.