Just a couple of years ago, Brad Brach never thought this could happen. He arrived in Baltimore from the San Diego Padres as a 27-year-old former 42nd-round draft pick with just over 100 major league innings to his name.
The past 2 1/2 years with the Orioles have sparked Brach's renaissance. On Tuesday, he will return to Petco Park in San Diego as an All-Star, and part of him still can't believe it.
"I don't think it's hit me yet," Brach said the week the All-Stars were announced. "I've had a couple days to think about it, but we've still got a few games ahead here. But I think after Sunday is when it'll all kind of kick in."
Brach, now 30, posted a 3.18 ERA in 2014 and a 2.72 ERA last year, but this season, he has been one of the Orioles' biggest contributors. He has a 0.91 ERA, and leads the bullpen with 47 1/3 innings and 58 strikeouts.
"I've been a lot more confident, and I feel like I've grown a lot as a pitcher the last couple years," Brach said. "Obviously I thought it could happen myself, but it was probably a little bit of a reach of a goal. But yeah, the last couple years, I've just come a long way as a pitcher."
In the absence of injured reliever Darren O'Day (hamstring), Brach's role as setup man has been critical. With 15 holds, he often serves as a bridge to All-Star closer Zach Britton. American League All-Star manager Ned Yost, the skipper of the Kansas City Royals, selected seven starters and nine relievers — just five of them full-time closers — to this year's squad.
Yost's Royals also rely on a deep bullpen, as they did in winning the AL pennant in 2014 and the World Series in 2015. With the crew of Kelvin Herrera in the seventh inning, Wade Davis in the eighth and Greg Holland in the ninth, they swept the Orioles in the 2014 American League Championship Series, and many clubs have since tried to emulate the Royals' makeup.
"It's just nice that other people are starting to recognize that and allowing guys who don't necessarily close to have a chance to pitch in the All-Star Game and be considered one of the best," Brach said.
The Orioles also had two All-Star relievers last year in Britton and O'Day, who advised Brach that the first-time All-Star might not fully appreciate the honor until he's back on the foul line in the first stadium he called home, hearing his name called along with the other stars.
Brach will have at least a dozen family members there watching him, including his parents, his brothers, his brothers' wives, his wife and his wife's family.
"You can say you're an All-Star forever," Brach said. "It doesn't matter how you do the rest of your career. You'll be known as an All-Star."
As a symbol of their successful first half of the season, the first-place Orioles will send five players to this year's All-Star Game, their most since sending the same number in 2013. Only once from 2001 to 2011 did the club send more than the minimum one representative.
Brach, Britton, catcher Matt Wieters, right fielder Mark Trumbo and third baseman Manny Machado each have different back stories, but they each helped to power the Orioles to the top of the AL East during the first half of the season.
Britton has been one of the most dominant relievers in baseball over the past 2 1/2 seasons. Since moving to the bullpen in 2014, Britton has a 1.55 ERA in 179 2/3 innings with 100 saves. This season has been his best yet, with a 0.72 ERA, 27 saves in 27 opportunities and only one home run allowed.
While Britton relies on the rest of the team to put him in a position to close the game in the ninth inning, he doesn't take for granted the run he has had.
"It's something that I've kind of thought about, performing at that level," Britton said. "Whether or not you ever make an All-Star Game, that's not really the point. It's more expecting high standards of yourself, and I kind of got away from that, I feel like, when I was struggling as a starter. Then in 2014, that offseason, I started taking that mental approach that, 'Hey, I want to perform at that level.' Obviously to make the All-Star team now is kind of crazy when I look back on it."
The key to his success is his power sinker, which sits in the mid-90s and touches 99 mph. He throws it more than 90 percent of the time to stabilize the back end of a bullpen that ranks second in the AL and fourth in the majors with a 3.12 ERA.
"Over 2 1/2 years now, he's been just incredible to watch," Brach said. "It's amazing how with one pitch, he can dominate the way he does. The thing is just so nasty. It's very good, but he works hard at it, too. It's great to see somebody get rewarded when he works as hard as he does, and he's dominating. There's no other way to put it."
The Orioles' other three All-Stars are from their lineup, which leads the big leagues in home runs and is on pace to threaten the single-season major league record.
Wieters has been a part of that lineup for years, but this All-Star appearance, his fourth, will mean the most. The last time Wieters made the AL team in 2014, he couldn't participate because he underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction in June that year. Two years later, he's thankful to be back and able to play.
"Two years ago was kind of a tough point in [my] baseball career of just trying to figure out how long of a road I was going to have to get back," Wieters said. "I think for whatever reason, this game kind of feels like, 'OK, [I'm officially] back to the level that I want to be playing at and a level that you continue to improve from there.'"
Wieters is hitting .258 with nine home runs and a .728 OPS. Machado and Trumbo have better numbers, but Wieters has been able to remain durable as a catcher, which is rare in baseball this year. He ranks third among AL catchers in homers, seventh in at-bats and fourth in batting average, again avoiding the injuries that befell him two years ago.
Wieters now finds himself recalling the long days he spent rehabilitating his elbow and savoring another All-Star appearance.
"The rehab, everybody knows it's not going to be fun, but it's the not playing that's the worst part about it," he said. "The rehab is good because you're working toward getting back to playing, but the goal is always to get back to playing."
Trumbo reached the All-Star Game in 2012 with the Los Angeles Angels, but this will be his first appearance with the Orioles, who traded for him in December. Trumbo has twice hit more than 30 home runs, but at the break this year, he has a league-leading 28, on pace to shatter his career high of 34.
After he hit 95 home runs in his first three full seasons, he seemed headed for stardom with the Angels. But the team traded him before the 2014 season, and he spent the next two years with losing ballclubs in Arizona and Seattle. The trade to Baltimore put him back in a pennant race, and his play has responded.
"It's the kind of thing that you can't necessarily plan for, but I think if enough things go right for you and you have a little luck throughout the year, to get some recognition is always nice," he said.
The Orioles' star has been Machado, who turned 24 on Wednesday and is already a three-time All-Star. He underwent two knee surgeries in his first two full seasons, but returned to play all 162 games in 2015. He has started every game this year except four, which he missed while suspended for charging the mound after being hit by a fastball from the Royals' Yordano Ventura.
Machado is on pace for career highs in batting average (.323), on-base percentage (.381) and slugging percentage (.581), while anchoring third base alongside shortstop J.J. Hardy. Machado also manned shortstop when Hardy missed time with a foot injury.
The Orioles' prosperity has coincided with Machado's rise, but they've only once had as many All-Stars alongside Machado as they will this year.
"I'm excited to go out there with four other guys for my team and enjoy ourselves out there," Machado said. "We're going to have a good time out there. I'm excited that there's just not one or two going — there's five of us. It shows how hard we've worked all year, and people are seeing it."