"A bullpen wants to be like an offensive line in football. It wants to be anonymous," Orioles reliever Mike Trombley said in the aftermath of last night's 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Camden Yards.
But it was because of Trombley's 2 1/3 innings and a perfect ninth inning from Ryan Kohlmeier that a bullpen that represented last season's greatest embarrassment became last night's pillar. The fallout was a win for starting pitcher Jason Johnson (2-2), a high-visibility performance for previously slump-ridden Jerry Hairston and a return to within one game of .500 (13-14) for a team able to play more confidently the deeper it delves into a game.
"You don't want to be noticed out there," Trombley said. "Like tonight: You get a lead from J. J. and you just don't want to mess it up for him. Give him a chance to win. Take the save and you've done the job. The bullpen is starting to click. Then it goes through the whole pitching staff, and the whole team."
The Orioles have won six of their last nine because they no longer flinch in one-run games. They are 9-4 in games decided by two runs or less and have converted eight of 10 saves.
"Those guys," said left fielder Delino DeShields, "have been the strength of the team."
Last night they made three runs stand up after Johnson left the sixth inning due to a combination of a high pitch count and a growing blister. Hairston provided a 2-0 lead in the fifth inning with a one-out home run off Devil Rays starter Bryan Rekar (0-4). Hairston returned in his next at-bat to ignite a two-out seventh-inning rally with a double, scoring on Brady Anderson's single.
The Orioles exited April two games below .500 despite a .228 average, the worst power numbers in the American League and a 6-13 record plus 5.07 ERA by the starting rotation. Solid defense and a revived bullpen compensated.
A year ago manager Mike Hargrove ground his teeth while his reconstructed bullpen ruined a breakout first month. The Orioles began 5-1, 11-5 and 15-10 while repeatedly stymied by relievers who compiled a 6.04 ERA and blew five of nine save chances. Following their 5-1 start, Tim Worrell, Trombley, B. J. Ryan and Buddy Groom lost on consecutive nights as the Orioles dropped three one-run games and a fourth in extra innings. Lacking a reliable closer as Trombley and Chuck McElroy also struggled in middle relief, the bullpen bungled 19 of its first 31 save opportunities.
Much the same cast that finished last season with a 5.58 ERA has flourished under new pitching coach Mark Wiley. Rookie additions Jorge Julio, Chad Paronto and Josh Towers have made only seven combined appearances - six of them Paronto's - while a veteran core has held.
Trombley represents the most dramatic turnaround. He suffered seven blown saves last year, eighth-most in the league, while surrendering 15 home runs in 72 innings. For much of the year he groped for the split-fingered pitch that had made him one of the league's most consistent and durable middle relievers before the Orioles signed him to a three-year, $7.75 million contract.
Now he more closely resembles the pitcher who saved 24 games for the Minnesota Twins in 1999 as a second-half successor to Rick Aguilera.
Though not around for last night's ninth inning, it was Trombley who preserved the important win for Johnson during a potentially calamitous sixth inning.
Third baseman Cal Ripken's bobble of No. 9 hitter Damian Rolls' two-hopper provided the base runner who scored on Russ Johnson's one-out triple behind DeShields, who appeared to mistime a leap for a ball that struck the base of the wall.
Allowed to continue despite a blister on his right hand, Johnson got his last out by striking out left fielder Ben Grieve, whose only home run this season was a monster shot against Johnson that caromed off the scaffolding inside Tropicana Park.
Hargrove then summoned Trombley to appear for the eighth time in the last 10 games. A breaking ball specialist now comfortable with changing arm angles, especially a three-quarters delivery, Trombley pitched around Greg Vaughn - 1-for-12 against him lifetime - to face the left-handed-hitting Fred McGriff. Trombley got arguably the game's most important out by getting McGriff to pull a grounder at second baseman Hairston for the inning-ending force.
Hargrove restated his confidence in Trombley by staying with him in the seventh inning after Vinny Castilla flared a leadoff double to shallow right field. Trombley answered with a fly ball and consecutive strikeouts of Mike DiFelice and Rolls.
If Hargrove played a hunch in the seventh inning, he doubled down in the eighth as Trombley's one-out walk to Johnson brought the left-handed-hitting Grieve to the plate.
Left-hander Buddy Groom was warm but Trombley was allowed to face Grieve, who stepped into the batter's box with 4-for-6 lifetime success that included two home runs against him.
Grieve worked the count full, but Trombley finished him with an 81-mph split-fingered pitch that ran down and in against him. Ripken atoned for his earlier gaffe with a diving stop of Vaughn's grounder. After sprawling to his glove side, Ripken threw to second from his knees to force Johnson. The seven outs from Trombley represented his longest outing since he went 3 1/3 innings last Sept. 3.
The bullpen's feel-good effort concluded with Kohlmeier's third consecutive perfect appearance. A night after retiring the Devil Rays in order to secure a 5-3 win, he went through McGriff, Castilla and Jose Guillen for his sixth save.