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Next season is crucial for Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy

Next season is crucial for Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy

In J.J. Hardy’s 12-year major league career, he’s played for three different teams, yet he’s never been a free agent. 

A year from now, that could be different. 

Hardy has twice eschewed free agency for three-year contracts with the Orioles, once in 2011, and again as the American League Championship Series began in 2014. 

He probably could have made more money as a free agent each time, but that doesn’t bother him. 

The Orioles were overjoyed when he agreed to a three-year extension with a fourth-year option that runs through 2017. Hardy’s three-year contract guaranteed him $40 million, and if he has 600 plate appearances next season, a $14 million option kicks in.

His option also vests if Hardy is traded, which isn’t likely, but as a 10-year major leaguer with five years of service he’d have to agree to. 

Hardy hasn’t had 600 plate appearances since 2013, and in 2016 when he had 438, he played in only 115 games. 

Not only would Hardy have to be healthy to get 600 plate appearances, but his teammates would have to hit well, too, since manager Buck Showalter usually batted him seventh, eighth or ninth. 

His injury in 2016 came when he fouled a ball off his foot and broke it. Hardy missed seven weeks but came back strongly. 

He played as often in 2016 as in 2015 when a variety of injuries slowed him, but his offensive numbers moved up. His batting average rose from .215 to .269 and his RBIs increased from 37 to 48. 

Not only did his offense come back, but his defense was much better in 2016, too. His defensive WAR increased from 1.1 to 1.3, far off from his Gold Glove seasons of 2012-14, but still fine. 

Hardy is never going to hit 30 home runs in a season again as he did in 2011. In his past three seasons, he’s combined for only 26, but he gives Showalter a dependable, heady shortstop who has worked brilliantly with both Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop. 

Hardy came into spring training in terrific shape, and once he returned from his foot injury on June 18, he was rested only three times. 

A year from now, Hardy will be 35, and there are not many regular shortstops of that age, and while Machado, who played shortstop when Hardy was injured, would love to play there, the Orioles would like to put that move off for a while. 

While Hardy won’t be the biggest story of 2017, it will certainly be one worth watching. If he can have another season like this one, even if he doesn’t have 600 plate appearances, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Orioles extend him for another year or two. 

That way Hardy could end his career with the Orioles, and without testing free agency. He’ll say he didn’t miss anything. 

MORE ORIOLES: Will Hyun Soo Kim remain a fixture for O's in left field?

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Kevin Gausman changes jersey number to honor Roy Halladay

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USA Today Sports

Kevin Gausman changes jersey number to honor Roy Halladay

BALTIMORE  -- Orioles pitcher Kevin Gausman will wear No. 34 next season as a tribute to Roy Halladay, who was killed in a plane crash last month.

Gausman announced the switch Thursday on his Twitter account. The right-hander wore No. 39 last year.

Gausman and Halladay are both from Colorado, and the Orioles pitcher said he followed Halladay's career closely and idolized him.

In a post next a photo of his new jersey, Gausman wrote: "Roy gave me the inspiration that I could fulfill even my biggest of dreams -- being a pitcher just like him."

Gausman concluded: "The loss of Roy is tragic and saddening, but I feel honored to have watched everything he achieved."

Halladay died on Nov. 7 when his small plane crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. He played 16 big league seasons, winning the Cy Young Award in each league and being named an All-Star eight times.

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Astros, Dodgers set Series HR record amid juiced ball buzz

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USA TODAY Sports

Astros, Dodgers set Series HR record amid juiced ball buzz

HOUSTON (AP) -- Home runs kept flying over the wall at Minute Maid Park, on line drives up toward the train tracks, on fly balls that just dropped over the fence.

Seven more were hit in Game 5, raising the total to a World Series record 22 -- with two possible more games to play. Twenty-five runs were scored in a game started by the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and the Astros' Dallas Keuchel, Cy Young Award winners regarded as among baseball's best.

After a season when sluggers outpaced even their steroid-era predecessors for home runs, some are convinced that something is amiss with the baseballs.

"The main complaint is that the balls seem a little bit different in the postseason, and even from the postseason to the World Series balls," Justin Verlander said Sunday, two days before he takes the mound in Game 6 and tries to pitch the Astros to their first title. "They're a little slick. You just deal with it. But I don't think it's the case of one pitcher saying, `Hey, something is different here.' I think as a whole, everybody is saying, `Whoa, something is a little off here.'"

A record eight home runs were hit in Game 2, including five in extra innings, and Game 5's seven long balls would have tied the old mark. The 13-12, 10-inning Astros' win Sunday night was the second-highest scoring game in Series history.

Keuchel was quoted as saying after Game 2: "Obviously, the balls are juiced."

Not so obvious to everyone, even amid the power surge.

"I haven't personally noticed anything. I haven't tried to think about it either," Dodgers reliever Brandon Morrow said after giving up two homers in Game 5. "It's not something you want to put in your own head."

Same for Kershaw, even after giving up his record eighth homer of the postseason Sunday.

"I don't really pay attention to it," Kershaw said. "I just assume that both sides are dealing with it, so I'm not going to worry about it."

This year's long ball assault topped the 21 of the 2002 Series. Anaheim hit seven and Barry Bonds and his San Francisco Giants slugged 14 over seven games. That was the year before survey drug testing.

Speculation that something has changed includes a study claiming to have found differences in the size and seam height of balls since the 2015 All-Star break.

"I know there was talk about different sizes and some of the baseballs were slightly bigger and some were smaller. Some of the seams were higher, some of the seams were lower. But, no, it's been consistent," said Rich Hill, who will start Game 6 for the Dodgers. "I think that just has to do with conditions -- if it's colder it's going to be slicker. If it's a little bit warmer out or humid, I think you're going to find that you're going to have a little bit more of moisture to the baseballs."

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred insists nothing nefarious is going on.

"I'm absolutely confident that the balls that we're using are within our established specifications," he said Friday.

Verlander rejected that assertion.

"I know Mr. Manfred said the balls haven't changed, but I think there's enough information out there to say that's not true," he said.

Verlander also does not think it's an issue of how balls are rubbed up before games.

"I know baseball uses the same mud for every single ball for every single game that's played," he said. "I think there's a broader issue that we're all missing."

On the day he become commissioner in January 2015, Manfred said, "I'm cognizant in the drop in offense over the last five years, and it's become a topic of conversation in the game, and it's something that we're going to have to continue to monitor and study."

Offense started rebounding during the second half of the season, and a record 6,105 home runs were hit this year, 2.4 percent more than the previous mark of 5,963 set in 2000 at the height of the Steroids Era.

"I think it's pretty clear," Verlander said. "I think our commissioner has said publicly that they wanted more offense in the game. I'm pretty sure I'm not fabricating a quote here when I say that. I think it was already All-Star break of `15, or right before, when he said that."

San Francisco's Johnny Cueto and Toronto's Marcus Stroman also think the balls have changed, with Stroman blaming slick balls for a rise in pitcher blisters -- an affliction which has struck Hill a few times in the past couple seasons, too.

Houston's Brent Strom and the Dodgers' Rick Honeycutt, the World Series pitching coaches, both were quoted by Sports Illustrated on Sunday as saying the slickness of the ball made throwing sliders difficult.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "I don't see a ton difference, but I'm not going to get in a verbal war with coaches and players who think otherwise."

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts had a similar view but acknowledged the power records got his attention.

"The pitchers talk about it feels different in their hand. The one component is the slickness and guys at different ballparks rub it up differently," he said. "Sort of feels the same to me. But it's hard to argue the numbers. You know there's more velocity. Guys are swinging harder. I know in Los Angeles the air was light. It was hot. The ball was flying, carrying more than typically. But I hesitate to try to give you any insight because I really don't know."

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