Baltimore is led by a great coach in Brandon Hyde, and talented outfield players to support their strong starting rotation, but when the relief pitchers come in there are times that all the hard work gets thrown away.
Can the Orioles fix their bullpen in time to face the league's best batters?
The Birds' pen is not broken, to be fair, only going through a rough stretch of games. Timing, though, is very poorly placed. As the race into October begins and the O's contest Tampa Bay for the top spot in the American League, a string of poor games from the relievers could prove to be an issue that keeps presenting itself.
Baltimore has the fifth-best bullpen ERA (3.63) in the majors at the moment. This would suggest that Brandon Hyde is overseeing a superior batch of pitchers, but the loss of Felix Bautista has been a major factor in this. A stressed group of overworked relievers have been taken advantage of by the top-tier hitters they have faced in September.
The only teams with a better bullpen ERA are, as expected, playoff contenders. Seattle and Toronto sit on either side of the O's. Tampa are behind by a slight margin of .06, while the Dodgers better the Birds by .13. Current statistics, though, are not an accurate representation of what Orioles starting pitchers make way for when they leave the mound.
No singular player is a liability to the bullpen. On any given night, three of the four relievers pitch very well, but someone is always going to falter. September 21st saw Grayson Rodriguez pitch a modest five innings of two-run baseball.
DL Hall was strong in relief, as was Jorge Lopez, but Cionel Perez produced a horror performance that saw him being removed from the game before recording an out and ended with three runs credited against him.
September 20th looked to give the Birds an amazing sweep of the Astros in Houston, but it was not to be. Kyle Bradish's six innings of brilliant pitching were wasted by Shintaro Fujinami and an otherwise improving Danny Coulombe. Combined, the two relievers tallied only two outs and were beset for two hits, two walks and two runs to drop a tight game in which both sides were lacking on offense.
The Birds' opening game in Texas, despite it being a win, also saw the bullpen perform unimpressively. Fujinami was again rocked for three runs in only one-third of an inning. Jacob Webb and Coulombe also surrendered a run without completing a full inning. As an odd note to this victory, Mike Baumann gave up a run but won his 10th match of the season.
Baumann, who has not won ten games through bad pitching but rather his slightly above-average consistency, was sent down to AAA affiliate Norfolk Tides ahead of Friday's game. Tyler Wells was called up in his stead as the Orioles look to fix the bullpen before it becomes costly. A questionable move that is sure to draw criticism, but the point has still been made.
Baltimore's pen is tired. Yennier Cano was gassed when Bautista went down. His new role as the closer saw him get overused, and rest has been needed from time to time. Without their two best relievers shutting down opposing bats at the end of each contest, the Birds' bullpen's WHIP and ERA continue to rise far above what had been their season average.
Why this is the worst time for it to happen
Now that it has been established that there is a crisis which needs to be fixed, one question looms large. How could it derail a playoff run for the O's? This squad of hard-hitting youngsters also fields the ball with precision. Starting pitching can be dominant. Hyde is a masterclass at game management. There is no way the bullpen could mess this up.
Simply put, relievers are placing the Birds in a precarious situation. The easiest fix to the faltering pen is more rest for the beleaguered players. Time to regenerate their stamina should prove enough to shake off the past couple of weeks. That might not happen. The Rays are only two-and-a-half games behind Baltimore, including the tiebreaker.
There is confidence among the Birdland faithful that Kevin Cash will not be able to manage his ballclub back to the top of the AL East. Confidence can be misplaced. If Tampa reaches the Orioles' perch atop the division, it could spell doom for Hyde and the boys. A tired bullpen that does not get a break leads to a continued string of disastrous outings.
The Birds need that divisional/league crown. Clinching the top record allows the team to rest and relax. Crucial off days, even before game 162, paired with home-field advantage that limits travel fatigue in October, are required to beat their opponents. There is a dwindling amount of time and space to fix the issue before it is too late.