Each time J.J. Hardy walks toward the batter's box at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the crowd chants his last name in unison with the public address announcer.
The rallying cry underscores how the shortstop has endeared himself to the hometown fans since joining the club after the 2010 season. Throughout that time, Hardy has been a steadying force in the lineup and shined defensively, winning three consecutive American League Gold Glove Awards from 2012-14.
Hardy was rewarded with a three-year, $40 million contract extension last season prior to the American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals. The deal includes an option for a fourth season that could become guaranteed, meaning he should be a fixture with the franchise for years to come.
This season, Hardy, 32, has fought off some tough injuries to remain a major contributor as the Orioles try to put together a playoff run. His performance has not surprised Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who has always been impressed with Hardy's toughness.
"He's one of those guys who might tell you something about [an injury] 10 days after the season is over," Showalter said. "We like him up there regardless of his last at bat or what his batting average is. He impacts our game every night -- defensively and offensively."
The Orioles made one significant move before the non-waiver trade deadline July 31, acquiring outfielder Gerardo Parra from the Milwaukee Brewers for right-handed minor league pitcher Zach Davies. Baltimore has made the playoffs twice during the past three years, and the current group of players has shown it knows how to win.
Hardy believes chemistry goes a long way in a successful playoff run.
"Experience is always a big factor in a situation like that," Hardy said. "A lot of us in this clubhouse have been to the playoffs and know what it takes. So, better to have that experience than not. Our chemistry has always been good. There's never been a problem."
Hardy said the team is focused on the players in the clubhouse, rather than who might be available from other clubs. He said it was important the team stay focused, and the players understand they likely will control their own playoff destiny.
"We just know we need to get hot, and if we do, we have a really good chance of going to the postseason," Hardy said. "We've all known we were capable of it. We've had some good stretches, but just been inconsistent. We have to keep this little stretch rolling and see where we're at."
Hardy opened the season on the disabled list after suffering a muscle strain in his left shoulder late in spring training. He was not activated until May 7.
Hardy later experienced soreness in his left side during early June, which held him out of the lineup for four games. Since getting back on the field June 5, Hardy has been an integral part of the team, while not experiencing any more physical setbacks.
"I've been feeling good. I can't complain," Hardy said.
Hardy has continued to get better as the season progressed. He enjoyed a season-high 15-game hitting streak from July 17-Aug. 1. Hardy said he did not do anything differently prior to that stretch. He simply got hot at the right time, as the Orioles shook off a sluggish start in July to move into wild-card contention.
"Nothing … nothing different," Hardy said about his approach. "Maybe the All-Star break with the four days off allowed me to recover a little bit, mentally and physically."
Hardy, who is 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, might not be as flashy as some of the other shortstops in the league. But there is little doubt he is one of the best defensive players in Major League Baseball. His prowess on the infield and leadership skills have also helped the development of younger players, such as second baseman Jonathan Schoop and third baseman Manny Machado. Through three-quarters of the season, the Orioles are the top defensive team in MLB. The talent of the middle infield has played a vital role in keeping the errors down.
"We consider J.J. very flashy because of the ability to make those plays without drawing any attention to it," Showalter said. "He got an in-between hop [against the Tigers Aug. 2] that eats a lot of guys up, and nobody even noticed it. Jonathan's doing things the way J.J. does them."
Hardy is a consummate teammate and is known to be one of the best ping pong players in the clubhouse. His peers also respect his commitment to the game and the professionalism he brings to the field each day.
"J.J. has been one of the best shortstops in baseball the last three, four years, and he's deserving," center fielder Adam Jones said after Hardy signed an extension with the team. "He could have gone to free agency and gotten more money, but it's not about the money. He's still going to be eating good, and he's happy here."
The Orioles acquired Hardy from the Minnesota Twins Dec. 9, 2010, with infielder Brendan Harris and $500,000, for minor league pitchers Brett Jacobson and Jim Hoey. Hardy then signed a three-year, $22.5 million extension and made an immediate impact. During his first season in Baltimore in 2011, Hardy batted .269 with a career-high 30 home runs and 80 RBIs. He followed that up in 2012 with another 22 homers and 68 RBIs, winning the first of his three Gold Gloves.
In 2013, Hardy took home the Silver Slugger Award, along with Jones and first baseman Chris Davis, after batting .263 with 25 home runs and 76 RBIs.
Last year, Hardy also battled through some back injuries that hindered his power numbers, because it forced him to alter his swing. He managed nine homers and 52 RBIs during 141 games. However, he was healthy for the Orioles' playoff run and got his first postseason home run off former Detroit Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer during Game 1 of the American League Division Series. Hardy led off the bottom of the seventh inning with a shot over the center-field wall that gave the Orioles a 4-2 lead. Baltimore scored eight more times the following inning en route to a 12-3 victory.
"The one that stings is that J.J. Hardy home run," Scherzer said after the game. "That home run really changed the game in my eyes."
Showalter said the grind of playing shortstop takes a toll on a player's body. As a result, it is difficult to be 100 percent healthy throughout the entire season. Hardy, however, simply goes about his business as a fixture in the lineup every game.
"He's had some big hits for us this year," Showalter said. "He really has. He's drove in some big runs. I don't know where he is physically, completely. He came back from a pretty good injury. I think we forget that."
Hardy, who was born in Tuscon, Ariz., was drafted by the Brewers in the second round of the 2001 draft. Two years later, he played in the MLB All-Star Futures Game. However, a dislocated shoulder and a torn labrum kept him out for the 2004 season.
He came back strong the following season and appeared in 124 games for the Brewers, batting .247 with nine homers and 50 RBIs. In 2006, Hardy was sidelined again after undergoing season-ending surgery to stabilize the peroneal tendon in his right ankle. He appeared in 35 games.
Once again, he showed his resiliency and bounced back with his best season in 2007, earning his first All-Star appearance. He appeared in 151 games, batting .277 with 26 homers and 80 RBIs.
After some struggles during the 2009 season, when he was sent to the minors for a brief period and ended up batting .229, Hardy was traded by Milwaukee to Minnesota for outfielder Carlos Gómez. Hardy appeared in 101 games for the Twins and hit .268. He was traded to the Orioles that offseason and has been a staple in the lineup ever since. In addition to winning the Gold Gloves and becoming a clubhouse leader, he appeared in his second All-Star game in 2013.
The focus now is on winning and getting the Orioles back into the postseason. There is no secret in what the Orioles have to do: Win, and everything else will take care of itself.
"Just go out there and win as many games as we can, and I guess in the end of September, early October, we'll see where we are," Hardy said.