Cole Sulser thought it was a pretty good pitch. Manager Brandon Hyde described it as OK. Neither one expected that it was going to land on the flag court in right field, as close as possible without striking the top of the out-of-town scoreboard.
The Orioles lost again to the Rays last night 4-3 after Randy Arozarena hit his eighth home run against them this season and increased his RBI total to 18. He entered the game slashing .469/.500/.980 versus a team that can’t figure out how to stop him.
Sulser seemed like a pretty good choice, with 13 of his previous 16 appearances scoreless. But he began the eighth inning by walking Kevin Kiermaier on five pitches, all of them fastballs. He went fastball, slider, slider and fastball to Arozarena, a 3-2 lead vanished and the Rays improved to 17-1 versus the Orioles.
By going 8-0 at Camden Yards, the Rays tied their longest winning streak at an opponent’s ballpark in club history. For the Orioles, it’s the longest single-season losing streak against an opponent at home.
“I thought Suls made an OK pitch,” Hyde said. “The ball was down right around the knees and Arozarena dives in a little bit. But yeah, he’s hurt us and he hurt us again tonight.”
The home run was just Arozarena’s second this season in the eighth inning or later. It marked his ninth career home run against the Orioles, his most versus any opponent, and five more than the next closest: the division-rival Yankees.
“I felt like I made a pretty good pitch to him,” Sulser said, “but the problem is I fell behind in the count, which definitely gives the hitter more control and he can be more select or more aggressive on a pitch. So, it’s kind of my fault for falling behind there. Put a good swing on, I think, a well-located pitch, but can’t fall behind in the count like that.”
The result veered away from how Sulser has been performing.
One finger can’t be used to pinpoint exactly why he’s been more effective in 2021, though his sharpness dulled a bit last night.
An entire hand is needed to cover the theories.
Sulser is in a better frame of mind. He’s in good health. He’s improved against right-handed hitters. He’s getting more outs with his slider. His control is better.
One for the thumb.
Sulser has matched his save total of five in 2020. He isn’t alone in his closer designation. It tends to be based on availability, matchups and anyone resembling a hot hand.
Rule 5 pick Tyler Wells seems more likely to be used in the role now that he’s come off the injured list, but Sulser regained his manager’s trust after losing the job last summer and averaging 6.8 walks per nine innings.
“I think the biggest thing would be mentality and consistency,” Sulser said earlier in the day while offering his own theories. “I think they kind of go hand-in-hand. I’m mostly just trying to attack the strike zone early and kind of keep that pressure on the hitter, and I think that’s been the biggest thing. The more I’m able to do that with multiple pitches, definitely more success I have. They expand the zone and it leads to good things out there.”
Any comparisons to last summer’s truncated season also must include the effects of an injury to Sulser’s right foot that he blames for the inconsistencies in his delivery and mechanics. Sulser fractured and sprained some toes after he accidentally kicked his bed frame while walking around his apartment.
Sulser had five saves, a 3.46 ERA and a .116 average against in his first 10 outings and an 8.38 ERA with a .316 average against in his last nine. He walked three batters on Aug. 22 and 30.
Other differences in Sulser include the .224 (19-for-85) average against right-handers before last night, compared to the .282 (11-for-39) average last summer.
“I think Cole’s made big strides this year,” Hyde said last week. “Last season was short, he had quite a few appearances, a lot of high-leverage spots. This year I think he’s a little bit more comfortable in the big leagues. He’s healthy, too. Last year he pitched, really, the last couple weeks with that hurt foot, but this year he’s maintained health. He has improved his slider to help against right-handed hitters.
“He’s always had that 93-94 mph good, hopping fastball that he can kind of get up above the zone. And then that good change-split that he has. I just think it’s more consistent. He had a tough time against right-handers last year just because he didn’t really have the confidence in the slider. Now he’s throwing the slider more, so you’re seeing him being able to get right-handers and left-handers out.”
While his slider usage doesn’t appear to have undergone a dramatic increase, he’s more comfortable throwing it in situations that previously might have coaxed a different pitch out of him.
“I do feel more confident with it,” he said. “I can go to it when I need to and not feel like it’s a real toss-up what I’m going to get, results-wise. I feel a lot more consistent with that pitch in terms of its shape and, knock on wood, hopefully I can keep it that way. It’s definitely nice to feel like you have a third pitch or a third option to go to, especially against a right-handed hitter, something going away from them. That sort of thing.
“It gives me that third pitch to use against them, but I’ll also say I’m probably using my splitter or changeup a little bit more against righties than I did in the past. So, in the past, especially if I wasn’t going to go to the splitter, I was getting very fastball-heavy against right-handed hitters. This year, being able to have a reliable off-speed pitch to go to them has definitely helped a lot.”
Success versus left-handers hasn’t been sacrificed. They hit .143 (6-for-42) against him in 2020 and were batting .195 (17-for-87) before last night.
“He’s a weapon against left-handed hitters because his numbers are so good because of that change-split,” Hyde said.
“I just see a guy growing and getting more comfortable in the big leagues.”
A guy who doesn’t really care how he’s used.
“I’m happy to go out there and pitch whenever they want me to,” he said. “Obviously, I love pitching in leverage situations. That’s what every reliever wants. But I’m happy to do that whether that’s the seventh, the fifth, the ninth. Anytime I feel like I can go out there and contribute to a win, that’s just what I want to do.”
He tried again last night. Two batters into his outing, he already had failed.
“Very disappointing,” he said. “No matter how many close games you’re in or not, you want to win all of them.”