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In need of lefty relief options, Orioles sign Zach Phillips

Could Zach Phillips be the Orioles' situational lefty while Brian Matusz deals with back issues?

Suddenly in need of a left-handed reliever with Brian Matusz’s status for Opening Day uncertain, the Orioles have signed left-handed reliever Zach Phillips to a major league deal.

Phillips, who made 16 relief appearances with the Orioles in 2011 and ’12, pitching to a 3.21 ERA over 14 innings, was in big league camp with the Chicago White Sox, but he declined an outright assignment to Triple-A and elected free agency.

To make room for Phillips, the Orioles designated left-hander Chris Jones for assignment. Jones was expected to part of the Triple-A Norfolk starting rotation this year.

While the Orioles bullpen has its share of lefties – closer Zach Britton and long man T.J. McFarland – Matusz, who is likely to open the season on the disabled list with a lower back strain, was the only reliever who served in a situational role.

Matusz received a cortisone injection in the right side of his lower back Sunday after making his first Grapefruit League appearance since April 2. Matusz missed nearly three weeks between outings with the back injury and now could open the season on the disabled list. Even if Matusz returns this week, it would be difficult to get him the innings he’d need to be ready for the regular season.

Phillips will serve as insurance. He had a nice debut with the Orioles after earning a late-season callup in 2011, pitching to a 1.13 ERA and allowing just one earned run over eight relief innings with eight strikeouts and two walks.

He nearly made the big league club out of spring training in 2012 -- he allowed just four hits, two walks and two runs in 13 1/3 innings that spring – but he lost out on the Opening Day roster to left-hander Troy Patton, partially because he had a minor league option left and Patton didn’t.

He pitched for the White Sox’s Triple-A team last season, posting a 1-1 record and 3.29 ERA with 12 saves over 54 2/3 innings. He was added to the team’s 40-man roster in the offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, but couldn’t win a bullpen spot this spring.

Phillips said he last appeared in a game five days ago and he’s been throwing on his own, so he’s ready to compete for a bullpen spot.

"I've always wanted to come back here and I thought it was a great time to,” Phillips said. “Just being familiar with Baltimore and them giving me a chance. I've always liked it here and thought it would be good to come back.

“I'm here for whatever they need and I'm going to try to stay healthy and pitch whenever they need me," Phillips said.

Jones spent most of his time in the Orioles’ organization as a reliever, but was used more as a starter last season, going 8-7 with a 2.96 ERA in 22 starts for Norfolk last year.

The Orioles spent the offseason focusing on adding left-handed relief depth. They acquired lefty C.J. Riefenhauser from the Mariners in the Mark Trumbo trade and also claimed Edgar Olmos off waivers from Seattle. Both have since been designated for assignment and claimed by the Chicago Cubs.

The team signed veteran lefty Jeff Beliveau to a minor league deal late in the offseason, but he likely wouldn’t be available until May.

eencina@baltsun.com
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