Brad Brach can trace the newfound confidence he gained in his first year with the Orioles back to one game in mid-May of last season, a game that the team actually lost.
Brach was called into the action with no outs in the second inning on May 21 in Pittsburgh to rescue the Orioles in long relief. At that point, the club was still trying to see what it had in Brach, who had been acquired in a trade with San Diego in the previous offseason for minor league left-hander Devin Jones.
Brach delivered four scoreless innings, by far the longest outing of his career, allowing the Orioles remain in a game that they ultimately lost, 9-8, to the Pirates. Despite losing that night, the Orioles saw they might have a new weapon in Brach.
Brach, who will turn 29 in April, went on to emerge as the Orioles' right-handed long-reliever last season, helping the team — along with left-hander T.J. McFarland — when innings were needed to protect the bullpen for the next day. Brach was briefly sent to Triple-A Norfolk in mid-June, but he returned for good about a week later.
"That was a real contribution to our team, and it wasn't necessarily in a winning cause," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said about the game in Pittsburgh. "To walk in that clubhouse and have your teammates walk in and go, 'Nice going, kid. That was big. Now we're ready to fight tomorrow. We've got our bullets back.' … To finish that game off, it made our team better, and that's things that some analytical [observers] don't know.
"I've said it a million times, [at age] 27 to 31, they [sometimes] start to figure it out. He has a different demeanor in camp because he's got some pelts. He's got some experience of success that you can tell he carries with him. You can tell he's got a little more peacock working than anything else. He knows he can do this and he did on a pretty big stage last year."
Brach's contribution to the 2014 Orioles easily could be overlooked. Including the playoffs, 24 of his 48 major league appearances were at least one inning, and 12 were at least two innings. And down the stretch, Brach earned more opportunities in the late innings, recording eight holds over the final two months.
"He was like a Swiss Army knife," Orioles set-up man Darren O'Day said. "When you see a guy who has the talent and is also a good person who wants to get better, when you see him make that step, it's awesome. The way a guy like that helps the team, we have to have a good bullpen and a deep bullpen to compete and win enough games to win this division. So it's important to have guys make that step every year."
During a 25-appearance span from June 23 to Sept. 2, Brach was 5-0 with a 1.07 ERA, four holds, 30 strikeouts and 10 walks while holding opposing hitters to a .142 batting average. And now, after enjoying the most successful season of his four-year major league career — 7-1 record, 3.18 ERA in 62 1/3 innings, plus 2 1/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs — he has entered spring training having established himself with the Orioles.
"Definitely feel really, really good," he said. "I feel stronger than I ever have. … From 2013 to the end of 2014, going from San Diego where we really weren't in the playoff hunt to coming here and winning the division and going to the playoffs, it's pretty crazy when you look back on it.
"When you're going through it, you don't realize it. In the offseason, I was looking back on it and realizing how long a year it had been and how much things can change in this game. It's really exciting."
It was a far cry from some frustrating years in San Diego, where he couldn't find his niche on the major league roster, often shuttling back and forth to Triple-A.
"I think if you don't deal with the downs, you don't know how to appreciate when you're doing well," he said. "I took some bumps the last three or four years, and if I didn't have that, I don't think I'd be where I am now.I think the last three years has really helped me develop as a pitcher. I've done closing in the minors and now I've done longer outings. I've done everything in the relieving role so I just feel really comfortable."
Brach also enters this season with a key caveat. He no longer has a minor league option, so he joins a bullpen full of relievers who also can't be sent to the minor leagues without first clearing waivers.
"The way I look at it, it's a little more comforting because as a reliever with options maybe you can be replaceable at all times," said Brach, who didn't make last year's team out of spring training and had three different stints at Triple-A Norfolk. "But being out of options, I feel like I'm at a good point in my career. I had a decent year last year to kind of set me up.
"If I was coming off a rough year, it would be a little bit different situation, but I think I kind of put myself in a good situation and wherever the chips fall, I'll just go from there. But I feel like I'm definitely a little more at ease because I'm out of options."
Brach likely will make the major league team out of spring training, and Showalter said he could earn more high-leverage, late-inning opportunities this season, especially when late-inning pitchers like closer Zach Britton and set-up men Tommy Hunter and O'Day aren't available.
That's welcome news for Brach.
"Every reliever wants to close," Brach said. "Obviously, Zach did a great job last year, but if I could set up or just pitch the sixth or seventh in a more meaningful role, that's my goal for this year."
Last season, Brach had a 2.18 ERA in Grapefruit League games, but he didn't make the Opening Day roster partially because he had an option at the time and could come and go between Baltimore and Norfolk based on need.
Brach admits that his confidence wavered, but Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti reassured Brach that he was still in the team's plans.
"They told me it wasn't if, but when," Brach said about his promotion to the major leagues.
And when the Orioles needed some bullpen flexibility, Brach was one of the first additions.
Brach had never pitched more than two innings in a game in his major league career, but long relief was the perfect place to build his confidence. He came into games when the starter was knocked out early, so he could concentrate on attacking the strike zone. Wallace and Chiti challenged Brach to get hitters out with three pitches or less in an at-bat to preserve his pitch count.
"I didn't have to feel like I had to strike everybody out," Brach said. "That was the biggest thing for me going for length. It was a lot different role than I was used to. It really gave me confidence in knowing that if I keep stuff in the zone I can get outs. ... It was kind of a no-lose situation because I was coming in when the game really wasn't in the balance, and I just went out there and threw strikes."
O'Day points back to that four-inning outing in Pittsburgh as the beginning for Brach.
"He just kind of figured out that he was really good in that game because he had to be," O'Day said. "From then on, he was pitching with confidence. He has three-plus pitches, so he should be confident. I think you saw that the rest of the way. You saw he could do anything you asked him to. He could go in for one inning, he could go in for three.
"Brad started out as a long guy, but then we realized he was so good we had to get him in there more often. I think the informed baseball people and his teammates know. After that game in Pittsburgh, everybody came up and said, 'Great job, man.' ... The guys in here know how important he is."