Orioles manager Buck Showalter was criticized as soon as Ubaldo Jimenez jogged in from the bullpen to pitch the top of the eighth inning on Saturday night.
Trailing only 2-1 to the Boston Red Sox, the Orioles still had a decent chance, prompting many fans to see red even before Jimenez gave up two runs to make it a three-run deficit entering the bottom of the eighth. The harsh reaction was fair with the struggling veteran now sporting a horrendous 6.89 ERA, but it illustrates how problematic stashing him in the bullpen is for a club currently without its All-Star closer or a starting rotation consistently pitching deep into games.
Asked why he used Jimenez in a one-run game, Showalter said right-handers Mike Wright and Mychal Givens were unavailable because of their recent workload and that he wasn’t going to use top relievers Brad Brach or Darren O’Day unless the Orioles had a lead. That left Jimenez and Donnie Hart as his only options to begin the eighth after Richard Bleier had already pitched two scoreless innings.
You may disagree with the philosophy of taking O’Day and Brach out of the equation there, but Showalter shying away from using his top relievers when the Orioles have trailed late in a game is hardly a new development. Especially with Zach Britton on the disabled list, the Baltimore skipper is trying to keep his best relievers fresh for the most winnable games, which will lead to some instances such as Saturday’s when he won’t use his best bullets despite facing only a small deficit. It looks strange when it happens and draws plenty of detractors, but there’s a method to his madness that’s worked extremely well for a long time with last year’s wild-card game being the ugly exception.
Yes, Showalter could have used Hart to begin the eighth, but the lefty specialist hasn’t been pitching well, either, and was only recently recalled from Triple-A Norfolk after being demoted last month for ineffectiveness. We don’t know how Hart might have fared against the top of the Boston order in the eighth, but he gave up a run in the following inning to make it a four-run deficit.
There was also the reality of Craig Kimbrel and his 0.75 ERA looming and the Orioles offense having, at most, three outs to work with before the Boston closer would be summoned. Showalter probably would have considered using O’Day — who briefly warmed up in the bullpen after Manny Machado homered to lead off the bottom of the seventh to make it 2-1 — had he known Kimbrel would give up his first two hits of the season against right-handed batters and allow a run for the first time since April 20. Managers don’t have the benefit of a crystal ball when making those decisions, however, and using your best relievers when you’re already losing and will be facing a terrific closer isn’t a great bet and will likely harm you more than help you in the long run.
Critics will say that’s waving the white flag, but you just can’t play every day of a 162-game schedule like it’s the seventh game of the World Series if you want to keep your bullpen healthy and effective.
I won’t argue if you want to blame Showalter for Saturday’s loss, but the real problem is having Jimenez in the bullpen and not having any trust that he can pitch in a semi-meaningful situation from time to time. In today’s game with such heavy bullpen use, few clubs are equipped to carry a long reliever who can neither be optioned to the minors nor be trusted to keep his team close when trailing by a run or two when other pitchers need a break. If Jimenez is relegated solely to mop-up duty, the Orioles will essentially be limiting themselves to a six-man bullpen most nights, and we already saw how that turned out earlier this season.
Asked last month about the possibility of Jimenez moving to a relief role before he was subsequently removed from the starting rotation in favor of Alec Asher, Showalter posed the question of whether that would be good for the Orioles bullpen.
We got our answer Saturday night.
— Luke Jones (@BaltimoreLuke) May 23, 2017