On many others nights, with a two-run lead in the ninth inning, Orioles right-hander Jim Johnson would have been on the mound to close the game. He still leads the AL in saves, and he had thrown only 19 pitches Tuesday after having three days of rest.
But manager Buck Showalter used three pitchers in the ninth Wednesday — two of whom did not record outs — to close out the Orioles’ 4-2 win over Tampa Bay.
Right-hander Darren O’Day, left-hander Brian Matusz and right-hander Tommy Hunter each pitched, with Hunter ultimately earning his fourth save after catcher Matt Wieters threw out pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson stealing to end the game.
And Showalter acknowledged that the way he used his pitchers Wednesday is something that could lead to speculation down the stretch.
“Oh sure, you can read [into it],” Showalter said. “We've got 30-something games. We're going to put our best foot forward every night. Jimmy's our best option, one of them. I'm glad we've got more than one good option. We've got a lot of good options, and we'll continue to make use of them.”
Johnson pitched three times in four days against Arizona and Colorado, but Tuesday night was the first time he pitched since Aug. 16. He entered in the ninth inning with the Orioles trailing and allowed two inherited runners to score. Showalter said he “could have pushed it” with Johnson’s availability in the ninth inning Wednesday, but Johnson had warmed up in a few games and not entered, so he wanted to stay away from him.
O’Day pitched a 1-2-3 inning in the eighth and returned for the ninth with Matusz and Hunter in the bullpen — a rarity for Showalter to have two relievers warming at the same time. O’Day allowed a single to designated hitter Wil Myers to lead off the inning, and Showalter ended his night and brought in Matusz to face the left-handed hitting James Loney.
Loney worked an 11-pitch walk after fouling off five pitches to extend the at-bat. Loney would be the only batter Matusz faced, as Showalter then turned to Hunter.
The right-hander got pinch-hitter Matt Joyce to fly out to center field and pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson to ground into a force play. That brought Jose Lobaton to the plate with two outs and runners on first and third.
Lobaton swung through a 99-mph fastball on the first pitch. Then, Hunter blew a 98-mph fastball by him, and Wieters threw out Johnson.
Hunter said he wasn’t surprised to be used in the save situation.
“This is a baseball game,” Hunter said. “Being a pitcher, you’ve got to be ready to go. When he got Matusz up, he got me up with him. It’s like that’s the way he’s going tonight.”
Moving forward, Hunter said the approach in the ninth inning is the same as any other inning. In the ninth, he came in with runners on, so he was just trying to get out of the inning. He wasn’t trying to shut the door or earn a save.
Based on what Showalter said, any combination of relievers will be called on to get outs late in the game. When a starter goes late into the game like left-hander Wei-Yin Chen did Wednesday, it allows Showalter to be more flexible. But Showalter plans to use Hunter, O’Day and company however he can.
“That’s just getting outs,” Hunter said. “That’s pretty much the basis of being a pitcher is getting out. It is what it is. Whether it’s the sixth, ninth, eighth, seventh, as baseball players, you have to get outs.”