Orioles' bullpen keeps dominating

By Jake Rill

BALTIMORE - If the Baltimore Orioles are leading after the seventh inning, opposing teams might as well hit the clubhouse early.

The Orioles began their 11-game West Coast swing on Thursday having won a franchise-record 100 consecutive games when leading after the seventh dating back to August 2011.

"If you look at the date, that's pretty much when things started to turn around here," Baltimore closer Jim Johnson said. "So we kind of point to that as maybe the beginning."

That was when manager Buck Showalter moved Johnson to the closer role.

Johnson has been a substantial reason for the bullpen's success. He recorded a team-record 51 saves last season and is 8 for 8 this season.

In addition to Johnson, Pedro Strop, Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter, Troy Patton, and Darren O'Day have all been key in the bullpen's success since the beginning of 2012.

"It's a new year," Matusz said, "but definitely I think the guys are picking up with the success that we had last year."

Matusz may be the most surprising member of Baltimore's bullpen. The former first-round-pick was expected to be a key part of the Orioles' starting rotation for years to come.

But after he struggled for several seasons getting deep into games, the Orioles sent him to Class-AAA Norfolk last summer to retool him as a reliever. The transition has been a success.

Since Matusz's switch to a reliever, he has stranded all 24 inherited baserunners. This season, Matusz has a 1.13 ERA, giving up just one earned run over eight innings in nine appearances.

Matusz said it's a loose feel in the bullpen, and the group's chemistry helps them.

"We have a good time down there in the bullpen," Matusz said, "joking around, having fun, playing games, and just have a good camaraderie."

Hunter is another former starter in the Orioles' bullpen. He recorded his first career save Saturday, pitching three shutout innings, and has had higher velocity since moving to the bullpen.

"It's all just about doing your job," Hunter said. "Everybody does their job. There's no quit in this team. ... We just go out, throw strikes, and let our team play."

Six of the seven relievers were part of the team's turnaround season last year. The only addition is Rule 5 pick T.J. McFarland, and the only loss is Luis Ayala, who was traded to the Atlanta Braves several weeks ago.

"It helps that we're young guys that are fortunate enough to play with the same group of guys going on three years now, almost," Patton said.

Orioles relievers have the sixth-best ERA in the majors this season at 2.44 and the best WHIP at 1.03. Patton, who has a 1.13 ERA, said the key to success on the bullpen is not dwelling on any mistakes.

"We've got short-term memories," Patton said. "When you do fail, you're going to get another opportunity in the near future."

Six of Baltimore's seven relievers have an ERA of 2.61 or lower. The only exception is Strop (8.22), but he has two straight scoreless outings since struggling initially.

Johnson has the lowest ERA at 0.75, followed by O'Day at 0.79.

Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters said it helps having them not give up crucial runs late in games.

"They're a big part of the team," Wieters said. "They're going to pull their weight and do what they have to do to get a win."

Showalter said when the 100-game streak of winning when leading after the seventh ends, the Orioles' relievers will move on and start a new one.

"When it happens, if if happens, our guys will be frustrated by it," Showalter said, "but not dwell on it and move onto the next game."