Washington — It's not to say Orioles right-hander Brad Brach can't be a suitable replacement to closer Zach Britton, because on most nights, he's been just that.
But there's no secret that sealing wins in the ninth inning takes something special.
And while the Orioles' bullpen likely has the pieces to survive Britton's absence, the way the Orioles fill the closer role on a day-to-day basis could end up being one of the team's biggest challenges this season, at least until the All-Star break – or whenever the club's All-Star closer returns.
On most nights, Brach has done the job effectively, but if blown saves build up, it ultimately leads to the next man up getting save opportunities. And Brach has struggled to seal wins of late, most recently blowing a two-run ninth-inning lead in the Orioles' 7-6 loss to the Nationals on Wednesday night at Nationals Park.
"Sure, and you'd like to say all the 24 other outs are that way, but we all know sometimes, there's a sense of finality with it," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said after Brach allowed three runs over one-third of an inning, blowing his second save opportunity in 10 attempts. "And Brad has done a good job for us. It just wasn't there for him tonight."
It's easy to forget that Brach converted his first four save opportunities easily, not allowing a hit over four scoreless innings. Overall, he held hitters to a .081 batting average over his first 11 outings while pitching 12 scoreless innings.
But closing is a "what have you done for me lately" job. And since Brach blew a three-run ninth-inning lead at Yankee Stadium on April 28, he has a 10.29 ERA. Opponents are hitting .367 against him, and he's allowed runs in four of his eight appearances over that span.
"No one is going to feel sorry for you," Brach said. "Tomorrow they're going to expect you to get outs. What I've got to do is have a short memory, forget about it, go out there tomorrow and get the outs."
On Wednesday, he lost an 11-pitch battle to Jayson Werth, allowing a home run to center field after Werth fouled off six offerings – five with two strikes –before finding a fastball he could handle. Four of the next five batters reached base, ending with former Oriole Matt Wieters' walk-off two-run single to right field.
In Brach's previous outing, he converted the save in the Orioles' 6-4 win over Nationals only after he placed the potential tying run on second base and the game ended on a double play prompted by a Nationals base-running blunder.
"Not a whole lot different, stuff-wise," Showalter said when asked the difference in Brach. "Just command in a couple spots, but he'll put together some real good sequences. Brad will be all right. He's good at this, and tonight, a very good club just got him."
The brutal truth is this: that the Orioles have already blown four saves in the eighth or ninth innings in the 20 days that Britton has been on the disabled list. Along with Brach's two blown saves, left-hander Donnie Hart blew a ninth-inning save opportunity on April 30 at Yankee Stadium in a game the Orioles eventually won in 11 innings, and right-hander Darren O'Day blew a save in the eighth inning of the Orioles' 5-4 11-inning win over the Tampa Bay Rays on April 26.
The Orioles ended up winning two of those four games, and four blown saves might not seem like many, but remember how much criticism Jim Johnson drew four years ago when he blew nine saves despite converting 50.
Britton undoubtedly set a high bar by converting all 47 opportunities last year.
From day one, Showalter has said he will share the ninth-inning load while placing emphasis on ensuring the health of his valuable late-inning arms. But the Orioles are learning very quickly that closing out the ninth inning with success on a day-to-day basis is a challenge, even with the quality bullpen they have.
"I think it's just the pressure you put on yourself," Brach said. "I've been trying to do my best to not think about the inning. I just think it's more so just not really executing more than anything else. I'm just kind of falling behind a lot of these guys and that's doing myself any favors."