Heath Bintliff: ‘Pen versus ‘pen

Earlier in the season, I wrote about how great the Orioles bullpen was doing and in the weeks since, the relievers have not only kept it up, they have gotten even better. Heading into this evening’s game, the Orioles have the best bullpen in baseball in terms of ERA.

But what you may not have known is that the Pittsburgh Pirates come to town, and they are bringing the best bullpen in the National League with them, the second best in baseball behind Baltimore.

So if you’re going to do some damage during this series, both teams need to hope they can hit the starters.

Like the Orioles, the Pirates have assembled a bullpen cobbled together with homegrown talent, castoffs and low-cost free agents. The Pirates have no Kevin Gregg type however, a proven reliever who commanded big money on the free agent market.

The Pirates ‘pen boasted two former fourth overall draft picks until recently. The Pirates’ first-round pick from the 2006 draft, Brad Lincoln, recently moved into the rotation due to injury. The Giants’ first-round selection from 1997, Jason Grilli, was signed in July 2011 after the Phillies cut him loose and has paid dividends ever since. Grilli has 39 strikouts in just 24 innings and has given up a lone run since the start of May. He’s the primary setup man and is a very tough customer.

The Lastings Milledge-for-Nyjer Morgan trade that the Pirates swung with the Nats a few seasons back is quickly becoming known for the pitchers that accompanied each player to their respective teams. Sean Burnett arrived in Washington and promptly became and integral part of the Nationals bullpen. Joel Hanrahan has gone to Pittsburgh and become one of the best closers in the game. Hanrahan has 57 saves over the past two seasons and only two blown saves this year. As you can see, you do not want to be trailing heading into the eighth inning with Grilli and Hanrahan closing things out.

Tony Watson, one of two lefties in the Pirates bullpen, is a homegrown arm who is more in the Troy Patton mold, a guy who is equally effective against right- and left-handed batters. The will throw him in anytime he is needed, from the sixth to even the ninth.

The other lefty, Doug Slaten, was actually drafted in 1998 and 1999 by the Orioles but did not sign (He eventually signed with Arizona in 2000). After tearing up the Triple-A International League for Indianapolis, he was recently called up and has not given up a run in five appearances. He can be wild though and the Pirates have used him situationally.

Veteran Chris Resop has been lucky. He walks a fair amount of guys (as his 1.64 WHIP reveals) and his low ERA is betrayed by some poor peripherals. Resop is the de facto long man and if the starter gets in trouble, expect to see him. If the O’s are patient, they can get to him.

The same can be said for journeyman reliver Juan Cruz. He strikes out his fair share, but has always walked a lot of batters and is an extreme flyball pitcher, something that is never as asset at Camden Yards. But like Jeremy Guthrie, Cruz has always managed to outperform his peripherals and while maddening to watch, he has been effective. Again, if Orioles are patient, they can get to Cruz too.

Upon closer examination, you have to like the matchup for the Orioles is the bullpens become a big factor in this series. The Pirates ‘pen walks a bunch of hitters (82 in 184.1 IP compared to just 59 in 209 IP for Baltimore) and that has to start catching up with them sometime.

The Orioles and Pirates share a lot of similarities. They both are trying to end seemingly interminable losing season streaks, both have talented young center fielders and both are leaning hard on their bullpens to help deliver their fans a winning season. And one way or another, the bullpens are likely to decide every game of this series.

Heath Bintliff blogs about the Orioles at Dempsey’s Army. His ruminations about the Birds appear as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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