While the majority of the pitching focus rightly falls upon the Orioles rotation and an ERA that’s approaching 6.00, the bullpen is rounding into shape.
Manager Buck Showalter finally may have the unit in place that he’s desired, beginning with closer Zach Britton, twice removed from the active roster with a strained left forearm. Britton’s third appearance Sunday since his return easily was his most dominant with ground balls to first baseman Trey Mancini and third baseman Manny Machado and a strikeout of Twins designated hitter Robbie Grossman.
Britton is right when batters are beating the ball into the ground or missing by wide margins. No one could square him up.
Brad Brach recorded 15 saves in Britton’s absence and while he still seems to be a magnet for criticism among fans based largely on four blown saves, he’s allowed only two runs in his last 18 appearances.
Brach retired all six batters he faced with five strikeouts on the road trip and his ERA is down to 2.58 in 38 1/3 innings.
Darren O’Day seems to be healthy again and passed a stringent test on the trip with appearances in three consecutive games totaling 29 pitches. Showalter needed to know that O’Day could do it if needed. Even going back-to-back was important, let alone the third outing when he hit a batter to load the bases and struck out Eduardo Escobar.
Mychal Givens deserved consideration for the All-Star Game and he had supporters inside and outside of the organization. He’s 6-0 with a 2.25 ERA and 1.023 WHIP in 44 innings and is averaging a strikeout per inning.
Givens has allowed two runs in his last 16 appearances. He’s gone 2 1/3, 1 2/3 and two innings within his last eight games, stretching out to 42 pitches on June 17 against the Cardinals, and is valued for his ability to fill numerous roles. Showalter can insert him in the middle innings or use him to set up, and he eventually could evolve into the closer depending on moves made down the road.
Is anyone flying further under the radar than Richard Bleier? His stomach should be scraped.
Bleier quietly has posted a 1.48 ERA in 25 appearances, giving him a 1.69 ERA in 48 career games including last year’s stint with the Yankees. He’s allowed one earned run in his last 20 games, and his 2 2/3 innings on Sunday were the most since he worked four innings in his first appearance on May 3 in Boston, when he held the Red Sox to one earned run.
Right-handers are hitting .256 against him and left-handers are hitting .263. Showalter is quite comfortable with the splits.
In all honesty, how many people were excited to hear that the Orioles traded for Bleier on Feb. 21? It happened in the middle of an exhibition game and executive vice president Dan Duquette came into the press box to discuss it. For the beat crew, it felt more like extra work - a player to be named later or cash transaction for a guy who was interesting to us only because he had an invitation to pitch for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic.
Bleier didn’t break camp with the team, but he’s now one of the most valuable members of the bullpen.
Left-hander Donnie Hart hasn’t been nearly as effective against left-handers, leading to two trips on the Norfolk shuttle, but opponents haven’t scored in his last seven outings and his ERA has dropped from 4.41 to 2.96.
Those are six spots filled to Showalter’s satisfaction as long as he can use Hart again in a specialist role.
Miguel Castro currently fills the seventh spot, but it should come with a revolving door. The Orioles like his arm, viewing him as a potential strikeout guy on a staff that largely pitches to contact. But he’s only 22 years old and was rushed to the majors before the Orioles acquired him from the Rockies on April 7 for, of course, a player to be named later or cash.
Were you expecting an international signing bonus slot?
Castro can be subbed out if needed. The Orioles also have used Mike Wright, Tyler Wilson, Logan Verrett, Stefan Crichton, Gabriel Ynoa, Vidal Nuño, Alec Asher, Jimmy Yacabonis and Edwin Jackson. They broke camp with Oliver Drake before trading him to the Brewers.
Nuño remains on the temporarily inactive list still since the Orioles optioned him on June 20. He received a second MRI on his oblique that came back negative. Maybe the third time’s the charm.
Going back to Britton, I talked to him in Minnesota after he allowed two runs and three hits in the eighth inning in a 9-6 loss to the Twins. His arm was fine, but he didn’t feel right.
“Results-wise, not so good,” he said. “Still trying to get comfortable off the mound. I think it’s been a challenge. The last three years you get a groove from spring and through the season and you just feel comfortable. I almost feel like that stage where I didn’t have spring or anything, so you’re trying to make adjustments and get back to my previous form without all those innings.
“It’s going to be a grind, but I think the biggest thing for me is the command of it right now. If I can get that there, I think everything will fall into place. But physically I’m feeling good. That’s the thing. I just need to get off the mound, string together a couple of good outings. I think that’s going to be the key for me. Stuff-wise, it’s still there. It’s just the commanding of it right now has been pretty poor.
“Caleb (Joseph) was telling me, ‘Hey, for the most part you looked pretty good.’ But these guys have a lot of at-bats under their belts. You make a mistake, these guys (Twins) are playing well, the Brewers are playing well. Hitting the ball on the ground obviously is big. I actually think the best sinker I threw the other day was probably the double I gave up to (Eddie) Rosario. But overall, the command just has to get better.
“When you get ahead of guys, it’s easier to kind of do what I want to do. When you’re falling behind all the time, you’ve got to throw some better pitches. For me, it’s the command getting back off the mound and building those innings and getting confidence back a little bit.”
His outing on Sunday was a huge gain for Britton and the Orioles.