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Ryan O’Hearn on Thriving in Lesser Role: ‘This Is My Job Right Now’

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No one in Major League Baseball has more pinch-hits than Ryan O’Hearn. The Kansas City Royals’ infielder/outfielder brought his magic to the plate yet again on Saturday against the Oakland Athletics, giving Kansas City an advantage that the club wouldn’t squander in a low-scoring 2-0 victory.

Stepping up to the plate with the Royals already up by a run in the top of the seventh inning, O’Hearn was subbed in for third baseman Emmanuel Rivera. With reliever Domingo Acevedo on the mound, the Royals’ pinch-hit specialist roped a 2-0 changeup to right field for a go-ahead RBI. This was O’Hearn’s seventh pinch-hit this season, making him 7-for-12 in those situations with three extra-base hits and a pair of walks to boot.

That .583 batting average is video game-like, and it’s a stark contrast from O’Hearn’s season-wide numbers. In 29 games (56 plate appearances) overall, he’s slashing .216/.268/.294 with a strikeout rate that exceeds 30%. Set to turn 29 years old on July 26, O’Hearn is far from the player he was when he burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2018. His numbers haven’t been impressive for years, yet Kansas City has insisted on continuing to play him and keep him on the roster. Both team and player may have finally found something that works, however, and O’Hearn’s explanation for how he finds success in pinch-hit situations involved simply embracing the challenge.

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“I think just doing it a lot and kind of getting over the anxiety and the nervousness and the jitters and realizing that at this point, this is my job right now,” O’Hearn said of how he’s mentally adjusted to this new role. “Embracing it and doing whatever I can do to help the team. Today wasn’t pretty, but we got it done, so I’ll take it.”

Kansas City elected to bring O’Hearn back for the 2022 campaign despite having Carlos Santana and a plethora of prospects scrapping for eventual playing time at first base or right field. He burst onto the scene in this year’s spring training slate (again), yet he hasn’t been able to parlay that hot start into regular-season success.

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As a pinch-hitter, what the Royals have been asking of him has been simplified. It doesn’t allow for much prep or thinking beforehand, which would lead to most players struggling. Not O’Hearn, though — at least so far. As he continues to get at-bats here and there, he’s trying to process everything on the fly and use that to make the most of his limited opportunities.

“Just taking the information, figuring out what pitches a guy throws and then being aggressive in my strike zone,” O’Hearn said of what helps him as a pinch-hitter. “Not a lot of reps lately, not a lot of ABs, but getting in there and getting a pitch in the middle of the plate and putting it in play. That’s the name of the game. Sometimes they swing your way, sometimes they don’t. Today was a good one for me.”

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Change is likely on the horizon for the Royals, as the MLB trade deadline could lead to someone like Santana being shipped out and someone like prospect Vinnie Pasquantino being promoted to the big-league level. Even if that occurs, however, O’Hearn may not be moved completely out of the picture. While his days as a full-time (or close to it) Royals player might be over barring injuries to anyone else, he’s an anomaly in a very specific role. It remains to be seen whether he can keep this up but for now, Kansas City has a pinch-hitting extraordinaire on its hands.

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