Orioles bullpen picks great time to right itself

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If you’d been told going into the weekend that Orioles starters would pitch only 14 innings in the first three contests of a four-game set at Fenway Park, you’d probably think there’s a good chance they’d be waking up Monday morning trying to avoid a sweep.

Instead, Baltimore will have an opportunity to earn the series win against the Boston Red Sox, and they can thank a bounce-back performance from the bullpen for it. After being scored upon in each of the first 10 games of the 2015 season, Orioles relievers pitched 7 2/3 scoreless innings to preserve wins on Saturday and Sunday.

The Orioles had to figure the bullpen would be busy this weekend with Red Sox hitters’ propensity for taking pitches, but that expectation grew scarier Friday night with the surprising ejection of starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez in the fourth inning. Kevin Gausman, Brian Matusz, and Tommy Hunter didn’t quell those concerns when they combined to give up three earned runs in three innings of work in the 3-2 series-opening loss.

But the rest of the weekend was excellent for manager Buck Showalter as Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, and Zach Britton pitched 3 2/3 shutout innings to preserve a 4-1 win on Saturday and Hunter and Gausman turned in four scoreless frames to back up Miguel Gonzalez in Sunday’s 8-3 final. Staked to a five-run lead when Adam Jones hit a three-run double in the top of the sixth, Hunter and Gausman didn’t exactly enter in a pressure-filled situation, but the Red Sox have reminded you many times over the years that no lead is completely safe at Fenway.

Hunter induced four grounders and a strikeout in two perfect innings while Gausman relied more on his fastball than we’ve seen recently in striking out one and allowing a two-out double to Pablo Sandoval in the eighth in an otherwise stress-free outing.

The Orioles are supremely confident in Britton and O’Day in the back end of the bullpen, but they need the quartet of Hunter, Gausman, Brach, and Brian Matusz to consistently bridge the gap from the starters to the late innings. With the bullpen currently hamstrung by Rule 5 pick Jason Garcia — he’s pitched only twice in the first dozen games of the season — Showalter needs more efficiency than usual from the rest of his relievers.

With the lineup currently missing former All-Star selections J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters as well as young second baseman Jonathan Schoop, the Orioles need their pitching to pick up some of the slack in the coming days and weeks to continue winning games.

Jones rightfully received the headlines for another blistering day at the plate Sunday that included a home run and five RBIs, but it was the improved work from Hunter and Gausman that was the most encouraging development for the Orioles as they pulled into a first-place tie with Boston in the American League East going into Monday morning’s Patriots’ Day finale.

And the Orioles bullpen turned what could have been a nightmarish weekend in Boston into a chance to take three of four from the offense-happy Red Sox.