Left-hander Vidal Nuño’s introduction to the already grim proceedings at Camden Yards on Monday night, with the Orioles trailing the Cleveland Indians 5-0, was a familiar one over both this homestand and the entire season.
Nuño and a host of other swingmen called up from Triple-A Norfolk to provide bullpen length have provided mostly just more headaches for a pitching staff that is desperate for their struggles to end.
It’s an increasingly difficult problem for manager Buck Showalter and his pitchers. The consequences of a bad outing are usually a trip to the minors, and the reward of a good one or two could be a more permanent big league job. Many more have left than have stayed.
“We haven’t sent anybody out who is doing the job,” Showalter said.
“Regardless of what we’ve [said], [Gabriel] Ynoa did a job [Monday], and we’re probably going to try to figure out a way to keep him. That’s what happens [when] you pitch good. But we haven’t had anybody consistently seize that job, kind of like Mychal [Givens] a couple years ago. He came in, but it’s hard to protect them with the short outings where you can try to develop them, get them on their feet, let them have a couple good outings, and not overextend them and kind of get their confidence. It’s tough to develop them or give them that leeway and that experience when you need innings.”
Nuño’s forgettable night — two outs recorded, five runs allowed on six hits and a pair of walks, bringing his ERA to 10.43 — led to his being optioned back to Norfolk. Similar middle-relief outings have inflated the Orioles’ bullpen ERA and failed to provide the short-handed group much stability this year.
Partly because of the circumstances Showalter said it’s part situation and part performance, but conceded that the Orioles’ unprecedented run of short starts from their rotation has created needs they just can’t meet in terms of innings from the bullpen.
“I’m going to be frank. Some of those call-ups have been by necessity,” he said. “We thought that [Jimmy] Yacabonis was making good progress and was pitching well, and we’d rather not have called him up. But if not him, then who? And we’ve had to call some people up that statistically were not deserving. One of them [Ynoa] pitched three innings last night. Someone has got to pitch, and it’s all driven by the short starts.”
Ynoa’s outing — three innings without an earned run on four hits and a walk, though he allowed two of Nuño’s runs to score — came after a tough relief outing of his own. And his six innings in relief of an injured Wade Miley in early May might have been the shining moment for the Orioles’ up-and-down depth. Whether he’s done enough to stick long-term is still undecided.
“I think luck has a lot to do with it, honestly, as well as performance, because you see guys come in and do well and they still get sent out,” Bleier said. “It’s just the situation. There are times when you need a fresh arm, regardless of the situation or how someone did. I think it kind of worked out that I was here right around the time we went to a seven-man bullpen and I started doing well right around then and hung in there. But I think for some of the guys, it’s tough, because you have to come in and perform or else they’ll bring someone in.”
For the rest of the pitchers who aren’t fortunate enough to stick around, veteran Darren O’Day says the chance is there for the taking.
“Obviously, it’s not ideal to have to send guys out as frequently as we are and it takes a toll on those guys, but somebody’s got to seize the opportunity and pitch well,” O’Day said. “That’s how big league jobs come about—you get an opportunity and take advantage of it. So, I think there’s some opportunity there, and somebody needs to answer that challenge.”
Here's a rundown of all the candidates who have cycled in and out of the Orioles bullpen this year -- 14 in all -- and how they've fared on the major league roster.
Alec Asher Asher is back in the bullpen after a few weeks as a full-time starter. The club believes he’s more valuable as a reliever because of his versatile arm. When Showalter said pitchers can perform well enough to stay on the roster, this is what he means. Asher entered Tuesday with a 5.24 ERA overall, but that mark was 2.16 in relief and Showalter plans on using him there to soak up plenty more innings going forward. Jayson Aquino
The 24-year-old left-hander was given one of the team’s April spot starts and earned a win with six innings of two-run ball, but he didn’t fare well being shifted to the bullpen. He allowed six runs over two combined innings of work April 28 and 29 at the New York Yankees and was sent back down to the Norfolk rotation.
Like Asher, Bleier is a survivor in all this. He was dealt a bum hand in his Orioles debut, coming in against the Boston Red Sox after Kevin Gausman’s ejection May 3. But once he returned from the trip to Norfolk that outing brought, he entered Tuesday having pitched 16 times and allowing just three earned runs. His ERA was 1.74 for the season.
Castro, the youngest pitcher in this mix at age 22, went into Tuesday having appeared five times over two major league stints and carried a 2.45 ERA after those outings. He’s meant to be in the minors developing his arsenal after two up-and-down seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays and Colorado Rockies, but has shown enough that the Orioles might as well see whether he can stick in their own bullpen.
Crichton has ridden the proverbial shuttle the most this year, being called up and sent down five times after he impressed in spring training despite not being in major league camp. However, he has struggled to find his groove in the majors, with opponents batting .453 off him and sticking him with an 8.49 ERA.
Drake made the Orioles out of camp and had two scoreless appearances before allowing three runs in one inning April 11 in Boston. The club designated him for assignment and lost him to the Milwaukee Brewers, who have used him 29 times. He entered Tuesday with a 5.26 ERA there.
Hart was seen as a fixture in the Orioles bullpen entering the year after allowing just one earned run in his half-season as a rookie last year, but he returned to the majors Tuesday with a 4.32 ERA over his first two big league stints this season. Showalter has said he hopes Hart could regain his 2016 success against left-handers.
The veteran right-hander pitched in three games over a four-game span after the Orioles activated him June 7, allowing seven runs (four earned) in five innings before he was designated for assignment.
Nuño has pitched 14 2/3 innings over 12 appearances with the Orioles and allowed seven home runs in that span. He made the club out of spring training as the second left-hander and has been up twice since then, leaving Monday’s game with a 10.43 ERA. Logan Verrett
Verrett might most give the lie to the idea that you can’t get sent out for pitching well, as he earned a pair of wins with multi-inning scoreless outings into extra innings April 30 (two innings, no runs against the Yankees) and May 9 (three innings against the Washington Nationals) and was sent out both times. His next two outings, which were also followed by trips out shortly thereafter, didn’t go as well. He has a 4.22 ERA in 10 2/3 innings overall.
Wilson’s greatest contribution was a six-inning, three-run start in Boston on May 4 that earned him a victory at Fenway Park and possibly contradicts Showalter’s idea that you can’t get sent out for pitching well. But in bullpen stints both before and after that, Wilson has pitched 7 1/3 innings over seven outings, allowing eight earned runs.
Wright was one of the rare ones who stuck around in the Orioles bullpen before a shoulder problem landed him on the disabled list Friday. Before that, he’d appeared in six games (11 1/3 innings) and was settling in, lowering his ERA to 5.56 at the time of his injury. A lifelong starter, Wright was still adjusting to the bullpen workload when his shoulder trouble cropped up.
Yacabonis’ debut at Yankee Stadium on June 11 was a tough one, with four runs allowed in one inning. He rebounded for two scoreless innings in his second appearance. But he recorded just one out Thursday while walking three of the four batters he faced before being optioned out with a 10.80 ERA.
Ynoa entered Tuesday with three appearances — two good, and one not. His six scoreless innings May 5 were followed by a disabled list stint with a hamstring problem. Once he returned to the majors Friday, he allowed three home runs in 1 1/3 innings. But he stuck around, and Showalter said he still might after Monday’s long outing. His ERA is 2.61 in 10 1/3 innings overall.
Baltimore Sun reporter Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.