MINNEAPOLIS — Shortstop J.J. Hardy was a member of the Minnesota Twins team that opened Target Field by winning the American League Central in the ballpark’s inaugural season.
Two years later, he has a chance to again be a key contributor on a playoff team, this time with the surprising Baltimore Orioles. Through Tuesday’s game against his former Minnesota squad, Hardy and the Orioles are 46-44, third in the tough American League East and just a half game out of a wild-card spot.
Hardy, 29, has been a big reason for Baltimore’s surprising success. After boasting career highs in home runs (30) and RBI (80) in his first year with the team last season, the shortstop has again been a key cog in the Orioles lineup. Though his average is at a career-low .217, he still has 13 homers, 81 hits and 34 RBI.
The key has been health. Hardy has avoided the disabled list so far in 2012, something he wasn’t able to do with the Twins – he had two stints on the DL with a wrist injury. Even last season, he missed time last year with an oblique strain.
Hardy hasn’t played more than 140 games in a season since 2008, when he played in 146 games with the Milwaukee Brewers. Through Tuesday, his 88 games played ranked second on the Orioles behind only center fielder Adam Jones (90 games).
“I’ve been out there pretty much every day,” Hardy said. “I’ve also had my ups and downs. It’s been a grind. It’s been a grind for me. But as long as the team keeps winning, it makes it easier for me.”
Back in 2010, the Twins traded outfielder Carlos Gomez to Milwaukee for Hardy with the hope he might solidify a shortstop position that had been in flux over the years. For the most part, he did that defensively, but he played in only 101 games. Hardy batted .268 with six homers and 38 RBI, numbers which were a regression from his time with the Brewers.
But Hardy was a part of a Twins team that won yet another American League Central title and helped ring in the inaugural season of Target Field with a 94-68 record. Two years later, he’s trying to help a young Orioles squad make it to the playoffs.
“In 2010, I feel like we had a lot of guys over there that had been there and done that, so when we did come to the tough times, there was some experience there,” Hardy said. “I think this team is kind of learning, learning what the pressure is like and the expectations. It’s a little bit different in that way, but it’s definitely a good team.”
Another member of that 2010 Twins team is also in Baltimore, as the Orioles recently traded with Philadelphia to acquire 41-year-old slugger Jim Thome. Hardy and Thome were teammates in 2010, when Thome hit 25 homers and drove in 59 runs.
Baltimore is hoping Thome can provide a veteran bat and some left-handed power to help Hardy and the Orioles make a late-season push.
“J.J., he’s had a great year. I think he’s a big part of what they’ve done here,” Thome said of Hardy. “Being a teammate of his, it’s a pleasure. He was the first guy that texted me when I got traded. Being with somebody you’re familiar with always helps, no doubt.”
The Orioles finished last in the AL East in 2011 and had a record better than only the Seattle Mariners and 99-loss Twins. But something has clicked this season for upstart Baltimore. Though the Orioles have faded since mid-June (they’re just 7-17 since June 18), they seem to be heading in the right direction as a franchise.
“Lately we’ve been struggling a little bit. But it’s still there,” Hardy said. “We just need to find that good team that we had early on and stay consistent and we have a pretty good shot. We like where we’re at so far. People didn’t think we would be where we are right now, but we’re feeling good.”