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Ryan McKenna providing late game spark for the Orioles

The O’s have gotten excellent returns this week from young outfielder Ryan McKenna, who is doing all the little things to help his ball club.

Miami Marlins v Baltimore Orioles
Orioles outfielder Ryan McKenna celebrates after the club’s walk-off win against the Marlins.
Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

The 2021 season has brought the first MLB exposure for Orioles outfielder Ryan McKenna. But that exposure has been sporadic, to say the least. He’s been on and off the active major league roster enough times this season to make anyone’s head spin.

Armed with strong defense and base running skills, McKenna is widely considered to be a fourth outfielder type. But at 24 years old and with only 82 at-bats in the bigs, his exact role is still up for discussion.

Coming off the bench late in the game last night, Ryan McKenna proved pivotal to the Orioles’ victory. He pinch-hit for DJ Stewart in the bottom of the eighth and worked a seven-pitch walk off of former Oriole Richard Bleier — who never walks anyone — then moved to third on Ramon Urias’ double. Pedro Severino followed with a routine groundout to first, but McKenna danced off of third base long enough to force a throw that skipped into foul territory for an error. McKenna was able to race home and score the O’s sixth run of the game.

One inning later, McKenna worked a bases-loaded walk to give the Orioles a walk-off win.

And that’s just the most recent example of McKenna’s late-game heroics this week. On Sunday, he scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth to secure a series sweep over the Nationals. In that game, McKenna scored from third on a groundball to third, flying home and swiping the outside part of the plate with a headfirst slide before the Nats even knew what hit them.

Stolen bases aside, McKenna’s base running prowess rivals that of Cedric Mullins on this team. Austin Hays probably belongs in that discussion as well, but recently, McKenna has been stealing the show.

While he may not be hitting much at all right now, McKenna’s on-base percentage is more than 100 points higher than his batting average (.183 vs. .295). If he could just get his batting average into the .240 range, for example, it would make a world of difference. In his brief major league career, McKenna has shown a tendency to chase fastballs up in the zone, so laying off the high heat is one area with room for improvement.

Still, plate discipline is another one of McKenna’s strengths, as evidenced by his career .351 OBP across parts of six minor league seasons. And it’s common knowledge that the O’s need every bit of help they can get in the OBP department.

There’s a perception that McKenna is the type of player who can thrive at Triple-A but is overmatched at the major league level. But isn’t it way too early to make that conclusion?

In fact, McKenna has only played 17 games at Triple-A in his entire career. He’s produced a .269/.367/.582 triple-slash line with three doubles, six home runs, and four stolen bases with the Tides. On the other hand, McKenna has played roughly a season and a half at Double-A over the course of his professional career, and his numbers aren’t as good at that level. In 195 total games at Bowie, the young outfielder has a .234/.327/.357 slash line.

In Baltimore, outfield playing time went up for grabs about a week ago when Anthony Santander was placed on the COVID-19 injured list. In the past six games, DJ Stewart has made three starts and Ryan McKenna has made three starts. But McKenna has come on as a late-inning replacement for Stewart twice in that time span as well.

So maybe O’s manager Brandon Hyde is deploying McKenna perfectly, for the time being, by picking his spots late in games to insert the young outfielder. Or maybe McKenna’s recent run of success is just a glimpse into what he can do if given more consistent playing time.

O’s beat writer Joe Trezza reported yesterday that Santander has cleared the COVID-19 protocols, so we should see him return to the active roster relatively soon. A couple of decisions will have to be made at that time as far as who gets sent down and how playing time in the outfield is divided up between the remaining players.

What’s obvious is that McKenna provides a spark on the basepaths that few others can. Plus, his energy is contagious yet hard to quantify. DJ Stewart could be headed for more time on the bench, which was the case before Santander’s IL placement. It may be recency bias, but McKenna needs more playing time and more late-game opportunities. In an Orioles season like this, the fans need every little bit of excitement they can get from a young, energetic player like McKenna.