The Orioles’ sweep by the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field last weekend raised all kinds of red flags.
But four days back home against the Tampa Bay Rays allowed the Orioles to get back to one of the things that has carried them to the top of the American League East -- a lights-out bullpen.
Relief pitchers Brad Brach, Andrew Miller, and Zach Britton combined for three scoreless innings in Thursday’s 5-4 win at Camden Yards, and the bullpen completed a four-game series against the Rays without allowing an earned run in 14 1/3 innings.
“That speaks for itself,” manager Buck Showalter said of the bullpen’s scoreless series. “Four-game series are so hard to win, especially with some of the pace of the games we’ve played the last four games. Our bullpen was just solid. Didn’t let anything get in the way, just kept making good pitches.”
The bullpen’s performance Thursday allowed shortstop J.J. Hardy to put the Orioles ahead in the bottom of the seventh, and improved the team’s record to 76-56, seven games ahead of the second-place New York Yankees.
Brach, who hasn’t allowed a run over his last 12 outings, allowed a single to Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings to lead off the seventh, then battled to retire third baseman Ben Zobrist on 11 pitches before giving way to Miller.
Miller benefited from a soft line drive that Hardy picked on a short hop, tapped second base, then threw to first for an inning-ending double play.
Miller needed just 11 pitches to get through a clean eighth inning, and he lowered his ERA to 0.82 in 11 innings since he was acquired on July 31 from the Boston Red Sox. Closer Zach Britton retired the Rays on eight pitches to pick up his 29th save of the season.
Showalter singled out the 3-1 pitch Miller threw to Rays third baseman Evan Longoria as one of the biggest pitches of the night. Longoria, who homered off starter Bud Norris in the first inning, fouled out to first base on the pitch.
“I thought [Miller’s] 3-1 pitch to Longoria was one of the key pitches to the game because he’s swinging the bat real well,” Showalter said. “He’s very engaged at swinging. He hurt us a lot this series. That’s the good thing about having Andrew and Darren [O’Day]. They can defend themselves against left and right.”
Norris, who allowed four runs in six innings, had nothing but praise for the relievers.
“When you have the back end of the bullpen like that put up a lot of zeros, it not only gives position players all that confidence in the world, but the team,” Norris said. “We can play a lot of close games, and when you can win a lot of close games, that’s why you stay in first place.
"We’ve won a lot of close ballgames -- that’s how [the team in] 2012 won as well. These guys are putting in the time every day, and the bullpen has been outstanding.”
Norris gave the Orioles one of what Showalter called a handful of competitive starts the team got this season, but the bullpen’s effectiveness has far outweighed that of the starters on the homestand.
Right-hander Kevin Gausman was lifted after four innings in Wednesday’s 3-1 loss, but T.J. MacFarland threw three scoreless innings in relief, followed by scoreless eighth and ninth innings from Tommy Hunter and O’Day, respectively.
Left-hander Wei-Yin Chen was pulled in the fifth inning of Tuesday’s win, but Brach, Hunter, Miller, and Britton combined for 4 1/3 innings of shutout relief.
O’Day and Britton combined for two scoreless innings in Monday’s 9-1 win, as well.
The Orioles bullpen lowered its ERA to 3.03 on the season with the scoreless series, good for the fourth-best bullpen mark in the AL.