It wasn't that long ago when we looked at the Orioles bullpen and didn't know what to make of it.
Yes, there were plenty of quality arms – and several that entered the season with some track record of late-inning success – but the lack of defined roles prompted considerable caution.
But over the past three nights, the Orioles' pen might have had its finest moments of this young season. Without closer Jim Johnson, who spent the past three nights hospitalized with flu-like symptoms and a bacterial infection, the other relievers sparkled in his absence.
The Orioles relievers threw seven scoreless innings against the Blue Jays, silencing one of baseball's top hitting lineups and sealing Baltimore's first three-game sweep of Toronto since Sept. 13-15, 2010.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter shied away from designating specific roles for his relievers, and in this series, it served as a benefit. He was able to use several arms in different situations.
"I don't look at us as really a slot team right now," Showalter said about the pen. "I think they know I really don't want somebody coming in and going, 'What's my role?' Your role? You're one of 25 [on the roster], one of 12 [pitchers]. We need outs everywhere, even in a game we're way ahead or way behind. It means you come in and get outs to keep us strong in all phases of it."
Now, the first-place Orioles open their three-game series with Oakland tonight at Camden Yards boasting statistically the best bullpen in baseball. And their major league-best 1.96 ERA could be even better if you take into consideration Kevin Gregg's 9.64 ERA.
"The bullpen's been excellent all year, just shutting guys down being able to do their job," said Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz, who left a tied game Thursday and watched his bullpen throw three scoreless innings in relief. "It's been nice."
Johnson – as well as newcomers Luis Ayala and Matt Lindstrom -- have yet to allow an earned run in 24 combined innings.
And they did it the past three nights without their lockdown closer.
Right-hander Pedro Strop earned two saves in Johnson's absence, seemingly thriving in the ninth-inning role, throwing high-90s, two-seamers that befuddled Blue Jays hitters.
And when Showalter wanted to give Strop a night off, Ayala filled in nicely in the ninth Thursday, getting his first save since 2008.
And on Thursday, right-hander Darren O'Day – one of the final pitchers to make the team out of camp after a spring hindered by a groin injured – was simply dominating in two relief innings (three strikeouts, no hits) in a tied game. A year after hip surgery, O'Day appears to be fully healthy.
"Darren was great tonight," Showalter said after Thursday's win. "That's something I know doesn't go unnoticed. Darren has been pretty solid. And that's what Luis does. We've got some bullets down there and we're able to use them kind of shuffled around."
It's helped considerably that the Orioles starters have gone deep into the game so far this season. They have given the team 11 starts of six or more innings and the Orioles are 10-1 in those games. That needs to continue to keep relievers off the mound earlier in the game.
But the pen handled its own pressure moment without their closer. And the best news is that they’ll get Johnson – he is expected to be released this morning -- back soon. But the way the bullpen flourished in his absence had to be a good thing for the Orioles.