As July turned to August, Orioles rookies Gunnar Henderson and Colton Cowser spent the night a way they oft have: playing Rocket League. But Henderson entered the gaming session with a purpose.
Since arriving in the majors, Cowser had struggled, perhaps no more so than that night’s game, when he struck out three times in four at-bats in the series opener with the Toronto Blue Jays to drop his major league batting average below .100. Afterward, Cowser admitted Friday, “there was no confidence there at all.” Henderson gave him cause to get some back.
“He was like, ‘I just went through the same stuff. Just continue to work through it. It’s only gonna help you in the future,’” Cowser said. “And now, you look at him, and it’s pretty encouraging. Just got to capitalize on the opportunities that I get.”
But it’s unclear how many more opportunities Cowser, Baltimore’s No. 2 prospect according to Baseball America, will get. Before Friday’s series opener with the Seattle Mariners, the Orioles activated Cedric Mullins from the injured list, while Aaron Hicks, another ailing center fielder, begins a rehabilitation assignment with Triple-A Norfolk. The returns of those established outfielders could squeeze Cowser off the roster.
Henderson, who entered the year as baseball’s No. 1 prospect, was able to work through his struggles in the majors. Through the season’s first 30 games, he was batting .174 with a .643 OPS but entered Friday hitting .262 with an .840 OPS since. Henderson emphasized to his friend that he stick to his routine and not try to change too much.
“I just wanted to reach out to him and, in a very low-key way, just kind of see how he’s doing,” Henderson said. “Really just talk to him, see how he’s doing mentally because I went through the exact same thing and answered the same exact questions. Just trying to pass on what I went through and just shorten his time in it because we all know what he can do whenever he gets going.”
With Triple-A Norfolk, Cowser, 23, hit .330/.459/.537 to become Baseball America’s No. 12 overall prospect. Through his first 26 major league games, Cowser is hitting .115/.286/.145, flying out on a hard-hit ball and walking twice Friday while playing left with Mullins in center.
Baltimore’s selection with the fifth overall pick in the 2021 draft, Cowser had slow starts throughout his climb up the Orioles’ farm system, and although those experiences give him hope now, he said they did not come with the level of expectations upon him in the major leagues.
He added his issues aren’t related to his swing, but rather his mental approach, saying his main goal is to “stop thinking so damn much.”
“Just gonna try to go out there and enjoy it, have fun and play like I got nothing to lose because in reality, can’t really get much worse right now,” Cowser said. “Just gonna try to go out there with that mindset and be myself and have fun.
“I think that it can only really go up from here, and that’s kind of the main thing I’m focusing on, just what I can do to help this team win.”
With Henderson and fellow former top prospect Adley Rutschman as examples, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde described what Cowser is going through as “typical young guy struggles.” He said Cowser, known for his patient approach, used that skill early, but as opposing pitchers began to attack him more, he frequently found himself behind in the count and struggled to battle back.
After that rough first day in Toronto, Hyde sat him the next three days, saying he wanted to give Cowser some time to “relax.” In the final game of the series, he delivered a pinch-hit double at 106 mph. Five of his six balls in play this month have been at least 95 mph, but only two have become hits.
“He’s starting to hit balls hard, and they’re just right to people,” Henderson said. “A lot of guys that get called up go through the same thing. They kind of struggle and then start hitting balls hard, and when they start falling, then they get going and they don’t ever look back.”
Still, Cowser’s numbers have ticked up somewhat since that night with Henderson, with the rookie outfielder batting .222 with a .697 OPS in August. Cowser said he initially allowed his on-field performance to affect his off-field personality, but Henderson praised his friend for remaining his joyful, joking self, saying a clubhouse presence such as Cowser’s is “what you need” at this time of year.
But the Orioles, with a two-game lead in the American League East, also need production. During their rebuild, they could perhaps afford to allow a young player to weather his struggles in the majors. Whether they’re willing to do the same with Cowser during a postseason push will be tested when Hicks returns as soon as Monday.
“There’s no real soft landing in the big leagues, especially in August and you’re trying to win,” Hyde said. “It’s not easy, and most of our games we play are close, and so how you soft land a player? It’s not ‘19, ‘20 or ‘21 here now. We’re trying to win games, and you do the best you can to put guys in position to have some success, try to have good conversations, try to make guys relax as much as possible, try to make guys feel good about themselves, try to give them confidence as much as possible, but it’s their job to perform.
“We’re looking for guys who can help us win right now. We just try to make them feel as relaxed as possible, and hopefully, they do.”