It's often been stated that handling a bullpen ranks among the most important tasks for a manager. Some people in the industry would place it atop the list. It certainly can be used as a separator.
I've covered managers who were terrible at it, with relievers griping to me about overuse or constantly warming up without pitching. It's easy to burn out a 'pen before the All-Star break.
Manager Buck Showalter is widely regarded as the best at it, though his insistence on making certain moves with an eye toward the next game or series, to "live another day," doesn't always sit well with fans who want him to win at all costs. He's not going to risk arms, choosing to look at the bigger picture while taking care of his pitchers.
In this regard, he's in perfect step with pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti. They huddle after every game to go over which relievers are available the next night and addressing the "what if" regarding the starter.
What if, for example, Chris Tillman is hit by a line drive in the first inning? Who's the long reliever? Someone has to cover the innings.
The trick is keeping the relievers from breaking down from overuse. Showalter took great pride in not having a single one ranked among the top 50 in appearances until Brach moved into a tie for 50th by working in his 26th game Thursday night while recording the save against Kansas City.
Britton was next for the Orioles with 25 appearances, tying him for 66th place. He's now tied with Brach for the team lead after recording his 19th save last night in his 26th game. Givens has 23 appearances and Darren O'Day 22.
Britton set the club record for most converted save chances in a row to start a season.
White Sox left-hander Zach Duke led the majors last night with 32 appearances.
The challenges of bullpen management came into play again Monday night at Camden Yards. The Orioles held a three-run lead in the bottom of the eighth after Manny Machado's home run and they threatened to score again when Chris Davis walked. Britton was ready, but Showalter didn't want to use him in a non-save situation.
One of the alternatives if the Orioles added a tack-on run was to keep Brach on the mound, but Showalter didn't really want to push him beyond the eighth and risk having him unavailable later in the series.
The Orioles stayed ahead 4-1 and Britton notched his 18th save.
"The tough call in that game is, if we score another run, who do you bring in?" Showalter said. "That's what's so good about having Darren and Givens and Brach. I really wouldn't use Zach in a non-close situation unless he had three or four days, and I really didn't want to put Brad back out there and end up throwing 30-40 pitches and lose him for a couple days.
"It's just constant. Whether you're way ahead or way behind, the decisions you make with your bullpen really play into things down the road."
Meanwhile, nothing has changed with the Orioles rotation since they arrived in Toronto. Ubaldo Jimenez remains the starter for Sunday afternoon's series finale. His name hasn't dropped off the game notes and Yovani Gallardo hasn't pushed him aside.
Gallardo is making a third start on his rehab assignment, rejoining Triple-A Norfolk for Monday night's game in Charlotte.
Showalter told reporters in Toronto that he's hoping Gallardo can come off the disabled list and start on June 18 against the Blue Jays at Camden Yards.
The lineup tonight will include Machado, who's appealing his four-game suspension. It took three weeks for his last appeal to be decided in 2014.
I'll admit that I expected Machado to receive at least seven games. Four came across as good news to me.
Machado received five games in 2014 for throwing his bat. He gets four for charging the mound and throwing a punch, trying to give Yordano Ventura a face tattoo with his fist.
The Orioles must play a man down while Machado serves his suspension. They went 4-1 without him in 2014.
In an ideal setup, Machado would start serving his suspension when J.J. Hardy comes off the disabled list, but the veteran shortstop is still inching along with his baseball activities. Otherwise, Paul Janish can handle the position while Ryan Flaherty continues to play third. Showalter gladly will take the defense.