TORONTO — Darren O'Day still remembers the first bullpen session he saw a 19-year-old Dylan Bundy throw on the back fields of the Ed Smith Stadium complex in Sarasota, Fla., during the first days of spring training in 2012.
"I've seen a lot of bullpens, but it was the best bullpen I've ever seen," said O'Day, the Orioles' veteran setup man. "Four pitches, consistent movement, all sharp, all plus offerings. I thought to myself, 'This guy is going to be good.' Now, everybody is just so happy for him being healthy, being able to compete. This is where he belongs. That's how good he is."
Now fast forward to this past Thursday – the latest chapter of Bundy's indoctrination into the major leagues, which the Orioles hope will lead to a shift back to starting.
Bundy entered the Orioles' contest against the Toronto Blue Jays with the game on the line. Now 23, Bundy pounded the corners of the strike zone with 95- to 97-mph heat to reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson before ending a 10-pitch battle with a called third strike on a 96-mph fastball just above the knees, stranding two base runners in a one-run game that the Orioles eventually win, 6-5.
They wouldn't have won without Bundy. The key to the outing was his location. Bundy has learned that he'd rather locate at 94 mph than miss his spot at 97. The next inning, he created his own trouble by putting two runners on base. But he got an inning-ending, double-play ball that he later said was the best part of his outing because he kept the ball on the ground, indicating he was getting good movement on his fastball.
Right now, Bundy relishes his role as a key piece in one of baseball's best bullpens. He entered the season with just 1 2/3 innings of major league experience as a September call-up in 2012. Since then, he has undergone Tommy John elbow reconstruction, and overcame various injuries that limited him to just 17 minor league games from 2013 to 2015.
Because he signed a major league deal when the Orioles made him the fourth overall pick five years ago, Bundy entered this season having exhausted all of his minor league options, meaning the club had to carry him on the major league roster this season or risk losing him. And because he has pitched just 63 1/3 innings over the past three seasons, the only place his could fit was as a reliever.
But the Orioles do have a plan for Bundy beyond this season, and it doesn't involve being in the bullpen. They would like to get Bundy to a point where he can go into spring training next year competing for a starting spot.
"I'm just happy going out there throwing one, two, three innings," Bundy said. "That's fine with me. Whatever the future plan is, it's up to them and if they want me to start later in the year or next year or not even start, it doesn't matter. Right now, my main goal is to do my work out of the 'pen and throw when they want me to throw and try to help the team as best as I can."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter called Bundy into his office in the visiting clubhouse at Rogers Centre on Friday, the day after his scoreless 2 1/3-inning outing in which he worked out of sixth- and seventh-inning jams.
"I ask him, 'Do you think about it? Do you feel it? Do you ever worry?'" Showalter said, inquiring about the long-lasting effects of elbow surgery. "He said, 'I don't even think about it anymore.' He's so much more mature about his arm and the health of his arm. He's figured out that more is not better. He's still a great-conditioned guy. I think if we get him through this year, we have a chance to have something really good next year."
Bundy has 26 innings under his belt this season, and Showalter said the club would ideally like to get him somewhere between 60 and 75 innings by the end of the year before they can truly consider him a possible starter next season. In Showalter's mind, he wants 70 innings, and provided Bundy stays healthy, it seems reasonable. If the Orioles want to give him more innings, they could find a place for him to pitch in winter ball.
"The season doesn't stop," Showalter said. "One thing you could do, if you think the kid's had enough, you could shut him down for October. I'm hoping he's pitching so good we don't want to shut him down.
"There are three things here. We want him to help us win. We want him to get experience, which is unusual for a guy who really hasn't pitched a whole lot in Double-A. Let's keep that in mind. I want him to be healthy at the end of the year."
Bundy has had his share of growing pains in the bullpen this season. Before Thursday's outing, he allowed runs in five of his previous six outings. He has a 4.50 ERA and opposing hitters are batting .340 against him.
"What he's going through right now is he's learning to be a reliever first, second he's learning how to deal with giving up hits, giving up runs," O'Day said. "His whole life he's been the best guy in the league, so to come up here and face the top 400-500 hitters in the world, it's tough. It's a steep slope he's climbing up and there are a lot of things he's learning on the fly. He's doing a great job. He's got a great attitude."
Showalter is quick to point out Bundy's growth. When he first joined the organization, his time to the plate was 1.6 seconds. It is now 1.2 to 1.3 seconds. Showalter has been impressed with the relentlessness Bundy has shown when going after hitters.
"He's not going to sit around and read everyone's bubble gum card and say, 'Oh my gosh, what am I doing here?' I'm hoping he'll look back on it and see how good the experience was. He probably wouldn't have gotten any more innings if he was in Triple-A and had an option as he is getting here. But I told him, 'You ain't coming up here to sit around and get another year. We've got to develop you up here, too. … You have to pitch. You have to get people out. I'm not hiding you. Your [butt] is going out there.'"
It is obvious that Bundy's arm is getting stronger. His average fastball velocity has gone up --- from 94.34 mph in April to 94.93 in May to 95.87 so far in June – all while throwing longer outings. He's getting hitters out with three pitches – his fastball, curveball and changeup, and Showalter said that after this year the organization will revisit reincorporating the cutter and slider into his arsenal.
"He's doing this without all his pitches, and he may not ever if we found that was hurting him some," Showalter said. "But usually you really don't know what the finished product is until the next year."
Bundy's game log shows that he's starting to gradually throw more pitches. He had his highest two pitch totals in his past two outings, throwing 47 pitches Thursday and 51 in his previous appearance on June 4.
"I think right now, the main focus is getting my arm strength back," Bundy said. "That's what I think everyone wants to see, me throwing 35-50 pitches right now with three days off or two days off. I think that really gets the arm strength back, because it's kind of the same as starting if I throw two three-inning outings. That's like six innings in a week, which is pretty much a start. I'm just doing whatever they want me to do and I'm happy with it.
"I think it's definitely getting my arm strength back to where it used to be in 2012. Most people don't like getting their pitch count up in the bullpen, but for me I kind of want to. It's not always good, but just for arm strength purposes, it helps to get my pitch count up there. As relievers you want your pitch count to be really low, but it's all good because I think I'm finally getting my strength back to where it used to be."
At the same time, the Orioles have made sure not to overuse Bundy. He's pitched on back-to-back days just once. And Showalter points to Bundy's effectiveness when he gets four days of rest – as a starter would. In those situations, Bundy has a 1.93 ERA and holds opposing hitters to a .235 batting average.
"Every day I've gotten that fourth day of rest for him he's been really sharp," Showalter said. "Trust me, he's a starter, but he's going to have to pitch. He's helping us win, because he gives us three guys in bullpen who give me length."