MINNEAPOLIS – After the Orioles' 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Sunday, there was definitely a rare tone of concern in manager Buck Showalter's voice.
Over the past two seasons, Showalter has been masterful at preserving his bullpen. He's made no secrets that he never will put his relievers in harm's way, and the Orioles have been able to manipulate the 25-man roster to ensure there's always a fresh pitcher.
But Showalter might face his biggest challenge of the season in preserving his bullpen through the coming weeks.
Sure, the Orioles have a day off today before opening a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays. And for the first time in a while, they will play three night games at the same time without any threat of a rainout, playing under the dome roof of Tropicana Field.
But Showalter said it Sunday: The Orioles' starting pitchers must get deeper to prevent a bullpen burnout.
Showalter said he could have stayed with left-hander Zach Britton to finish out Sunday’s loss, but with Britton having thrown 17 pitches over 1 1/3 innings, he turned to right-hander Brad Brach to get the final out in the eighth inning.
“I know Zach probably could have finished, but I’m trying to save the bullets,” Showalter said. “Fortunately we have a day off, but we’re going to go through a period here after the off day where those type of things are going to catch up with you.”
After today's day off, the Orioles play 13 consecutive days and 26 of the next 27 days until June 2.
That’s partially why the Orioles were confused as to why today’s day off was the third scheduled one in an eight-day span. Back-to-back rainouts and an ensuing doubleheader altered that schedule slightly. Even though the Orioles swept Thursday’s doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates, it seems like they’ve been trying to recover ever since.
After Brach struggled in his Orioles debut Saturday, allowing a three-run homer to Joe Mauer in the club's 6-1 loss to the Twins, Showalter said he was forced to use Brach earlier than he liked against different hitters in the Minnesota lineup.
Starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen, who lasted just 5 1/3 innings, forced his hand. And Brach obviously struggled in 1 1/3 innings, allowing three runs and four hits.
The Orioles don’t have much choice but to ride it out with these starters. Kevin Gausman is out with pneumonia (and on a pitch count). Steve Johnson is recovering from an injury. Suk-min Yoon hasn't been consistent enough to be an option, and Johan Santana and Dylan Bundy likely won’t be options until June.
“We’ve just got to be better,” Showalter said. “We’ve got to figure it out. ... I’m looking at what we’ve got, and [those pitchers] are capable. It’s just that we haven’t been as consistent as we need to be.”"
It wasn’t that long ago when the Orioles bullpen looked iron clad, but Evan Meek and Josh Stinson are now both in Triple-A. And Troy Patton is just getting back from his 25-game suspension.
Don’t be surprised if the Orioles add a 13th pitcher in the coming days if the trend of short starts continues.
Showalter will continue to do all he can to preserve his bullpen, but it will be a challenge unless the Orioles get more innings out of their starters.