After slow start, bullpen becoming steadying force for Orioles

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Monday brought an even bigger surprise than the Orioles’ ability to hand Houston starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel his first loss of the 2015 season.

After Steve Pearce had clubbed a two-run home run to right-center to give the Orioles a 4-3 lead in the seventh inning, you figured manager Buck Showalter would turn to Darren O’Day or Tommy Hunter to pitch the eighth. O’Day hadn’t pitched since Saturday and Hunter hadn’t worked since Friday, but Showalter instead called upon rookie Oliver Drake, who had pitched three scoreless innings in the 1-0 loss to Miami in 13 innings on Saturday night.

The move raised a few eyebrows, but Drake came through once again, pitching a perfect inning with two strikeouts in his second major league appearance. Showalter cited Drake’s ability to retire hitters from both sides of the plate as his rationale for going to the Naval Academy product — two left-handed hitters were due up in the inning and Brian Matusz wasn’t available — but it’s no secret that the 27-year-old right-hander has already impressed with his nasty split-fingered fastball.

“It all works off his fastball command. He has a way to make you look between velocities,” Showalter said. “Even if you’re right on one of the velocities, you might not get there. You saw it on the fastball to [Colby] Rasmus. He doesn’t have to throw 95 [mph] to get a reaction. When you have to defend the other-speed pitch, that 90 looks 100.”

Monday’s win featured three scoreless innings from Brad Brach and Drake before closer Zach Britton slammed the door on the Astros in the ninth, continuing an impressive run for Orioles relievers after a rocky April. Dating back to April 29, the Baltimore bullpen has posted a 2.23 ERA in its last 65 2/3 innings.

The group has been even better of late by allowing just six earned runs in its last 30 1/3 innings. The success has improved the club’s bullpen ERA to 3.32, which ranks sixth in the American League. It’s helped that the Orioles rank only 12th in the AL in relief innings, a reflection of starters working deeper into games than they did in April.

It’s a pleasant change after the bullpen posted a 4.35 ERA in the opening month of the season.

With the bullpen being the backbone of their success over the previous three seasons, the Orioles figured to lean heavily on Britton, O’Day, and Hunter this year, but the emergence of Brach since the second half of last season has been an encouraging development. The 29-year-old right-hander leads the club with 22 2/3 relief innings this season and has lowered his ERA to 3.57 after a difficult start. Since being scored upon in his first four outings of 2015, Brach has pitched to a 2.00 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 18 innings of work.

Despite an uneven beginning to the season for the 20-22 Orioles, seeing the likes of Brach and Drake pick up the slack in some meaningful situations bodes well now and for the long haul.

“That helps with us later on in the season,” Brach said. “You don’t have to throw the same guys out there every single time. You see some of the teams that kind of have the same guys they go to every time. It kind of keeps us on our toes. On the same token, any situation could be any guy and everybody’s got to be ready to go, so it keeps us ready to go and sharp during the game.”