Richard Bleier emerged from the Orioles dugout at 6:45 p.m. and began making the walk to the bullpen. Coaches Doug Brocail and John Wasdin were waiting for him. So, too, was Chance Sisco, who grabbed a ball and played catch to loosen his arm.
Bleier wasn’t on the usual starter’s warmup schedule. He wasn’t in the traditional mindset. This was a reliever used as an opener and he was going to do it his way.
Filling a spot in the rotation that he hadn’t occupied since the minors and winter ball, Bleier surrendered a two-run homer to the Mariners’ Kyle Lewis in the first inning, stranded a runner in the second and handed over the game and a lead to starter-turned-bulk pitcher Aaron Brooks.
The plan kept working. Brooks held the Mariners to one run and one hit over seven innings, retiring the last 13 batters, and the Orioles began their last home series of 2019 with a 5-3 victory before an announced crowd of 11,714 at Camden Yards.
Brooks threw only nine pitches in the eighth inning, had retired 15 of the last 17 batters and came back out for the ninth with his count at 72. He got a strikeout, a sensational diving catch from Austin Hays in shallow center field and another strikeout with his 83rd pitch.
“I think just not really trying to change it up too much,” Brooks said when asked why he was so effective. “Regardless of starting a game or coming out, I think we all have a job to do and just trying to stay focused on each batter. And getting ahead regardless for me is huge.”
“That was the best we’ve seen Brooksie all year,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “That was three pitches for strikes, really in control the entire time. He gave up one hit, one walk in seven innings. Pitched ahead in the count, got some big strikeouts, just had a lot of composure tonight. He was in control in his delivery, was able to locate.
“That was just a fantastic performance and we played great defense behind him. That’s the name of the game, pitching and defense. It’s been a little bit of a struggle for us, but we showed up tonight in that way.”
Santander clubbed a three-run homer off Félix Hernández in the bottom of the first and Hays had an RBI groundout after Rio Ruiz doubled and moved to third base on a wild pitch.
Hernández, winding down a sensational career with the Mariners, surrendered Alberto’s solo shot in the fourth after the Orioles lead had been cut to 4-3 in the top half.
Dylan Moore reached on an infield hit with two outs in the second, but Bleier retired Dee Gordon on a grounder and was done after 30 pitches. Ryan Eades sat down and Brooks began to warm.
The key for Bleier now is remembering that the starter makes himself available to the media after the game.
Bleier ignored the unwritten rule about starters avoiding it before the game, engaging in small talk with a few reporters before returning to his locker.
No need for formalities.
Bleier made a start at Double-A Bowie this season, but he was on an injury rehab assignment. Not counting it.
Prior to tonight’s game, Bleier’s most recent non-injury start came with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2016. He made 10 of them, the last on Sept. 5 against Syracuse, when he allowed three runs in 5 2/3 innings.
His previous start was worse, with six runs and 10 hits over four innings against Rochester. In between were three scoreless relief innings in Buffalo.
He was destined for the bullpen life.
Bleier’s earliest appearance this season was in the fourth inning of a May 19 game in Cleveland. He threw 31 pitches, four short of his season high set in his previous outing.
His earliest career appearance in the majors came in his 2017 debut on May 3 in Boston. Kevin Gausman was ejected after hitting Xander Bogaerts leading off the bottom of the second and Bleier worked the next four innings.
Not the way former manager Buck Showalter mapped it out.
Bleier found out a few days ago that he might be opening tonight if he wasn’t needed in relief. It depended how the games lined up.
As it turned out, Bleier would have closed last night or entered in the ninth with the score tied if the Orioles hadn’t fallen behind.
“We just kind of took a flyer,” Hyde said. “I knew there was going to be a stack of lefties, so we decided to pitch a left-hander to start the game and let him sit for a couple of innings and then come in the game and it worked out really well.
“I feel bad for Rich. He made one bad pitch and threw the ball OK and then Aaron was in command from the beginning in his outing and looked under control and really threw the ball well.”
“I thought it was interesting,” Bleier said. “I tried to treat it as much of a relief outing as I could. I went out there pretty late, just threw my normal pitches that I do before I come in the game and went in the dugout. I don’t think that it was different. I felt like I was making comparative pitches the same. It was another outing. Just didn’t execute one pitch and he hit a two-run homer off me.
“It’s been mentioned a couple times here the last month or so and just never really worked out for different situations and different teams. So it was something, I’ll pitch whenever they want me to pitch and try to do as well as I can.”
Bleier threw 16 pitches in a first inning where he retired the first two batters, gave up a single to Kyle Seager and hung a cutter to Lewis.
Brooks allowed a run in the fourth on Lewis’ leadoff double and two grounders, the second producing a sensational diving backhand stop and throw by Alberto to rob Austin Nola.
Alberto also robbed Moore leading off the fifth by running down a pop up in shallow right field and making a sliding catch. The play came after Alberto deposited a Hernandez fastball into the home bullpen for a 5-3 lead.
Too late to be named Most Valuable Oriole, but Alberto certainly brought his A game tonight.
“That was major league defense tonight,” Hyde said. “That was nice to see. Alberto with a few nice plays and Hays with another great play in the big spot in the ninth inning. That ball lands, anything can happen. Situation changes a little bit with the tying run at the plate, so it was a huge play.”
Brooks stranded two runners in the fifth following an error and walk. He had gone six innings in three games this season, most recently on Aug. 27 in D.C.
Returning for the ninth tonight pushed him past the mark.
“I felt good,” Brooks said. “Obviously the defense did a heck of a job tonight picking me up and that helps us pitchers stay out there for longer. That was probably what was able to keep me in the game longer was making those plays and I just tried to stay focused. I felt like I had some decent stuff tonight.”
Brooks allowed 22 runs in the first inning this year. He didn’t have to touch it tonight.
The plan worked.
“I think just coming out of the ‘pen a little bit, not knowing when you’re going to go in kind of keeps you on your toes a little bit,” Brooks said. “I think it kind of helped me ease my mind a little bit, but I’ve just got to find that happy medium of being able to do that in the rotation, as well.”
“It was incredible,” Bleier said. “It really was a great team game. I spotted them two before we even hit and our guys answered right back and we took the lead and Brooks came in. I put up a zero after we scored and then he just dominated. It was extremely impressive to watch.”
Chris Davis singled in the second and fourth innings for his first multi-hit game since Aug. 1 after beginning the night 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts in September.