Orioles’ bullpen continues to provide relief

BOSTON - You can point the finger in a lot of different directions when figuring all the ways that the Orioles have bolted to a 16-9 start.

The club’s bullpen deserves a big hand.

Orioles relievers have combined to post a 1.73 ERA heading into Friday night’s game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, the lowest figure in the majors. They’ve permitted only seven earned runs in their last 53 innings, including a perfect ninth last night from closer Jim Johnson, which largely went unnoticed in a 5-0 victory over the Yankees in the Bronx.

The bullpen usually is a migraine for Orioles fans. It’s retooled every winter. Significant investments are made in veterans who don’t pan out. It’s not uncommon for a reliever to be cut loose in the middle of the season, if not sooner. (Jim Brower, Mike DeJean and Steve Reed immediately come to mind, and there have been countless others.)

The finger was pointed a lot then, too. It was just a different finger.

Executive vice president Dan Duquette brought in Luis Ayala as a free agent and traded for Matt Lindstrom, and so far he’s been rewarded. Ayala (12 innings) and Lindstrom (9 2/3) haven’t allowed a run.

Darren O’Day, signed shortly before Duquette was hired, has strung together nine straight scoreless appearances over 11 1/3 innings, with four hits, one walk and 13 strikeouts.

Remember all the angst in spring training over Johnson’s diminished velocity? He hasn’t surrendered a run in 9 2/3 innings, and he’s converted all seven save opportunities this season.

Johnson was hospitalized for four days with a severe case of food poisoning and flu-like symptoms, but Pedro Strop converted back-to-back save chances and Ayala secured his first save since 2008 with the Mets.

Strop came to the Orioles under former executive Andy MacPhail’s watch. So did the much-maligned Kevin Gregg, who lost his job as closer and barely pitches anymore, but retired the Athletics in order with two strikeouts in his most recent outing on April 27.

Of the nine American League relievers who haven’t allowed a run this season, three are Orioles - Ayala, Lindstrom and Johnson. Five of the top 25 ERAs in the league before last night belonged to Orioles - including O’Day (0.71) and Strop (2.08).

“I’m not that smart. There was a lot of unknown coming in,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s like J.J. Hardy. You don’t really know until you get in the heat of action. But they’re kind of feeding off each other. I don’t think they feel like any one guy has to carry the load, like, ‘Oh, if I don’t do it, nobody else will.’ They’re actually competing a little bit against each other in a good way that they don’t let each other down.

“Darren’s been a good pickup for us so far. He’s been healthy with his hip. I think they know there’s not 15 outs they’ve got to get down there. I think that helps, too. And I’ve been able to stay away from using them too much, a lot like last year. We moved it around. Keeping a bullpen healthy is a challenge.”

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