Before right-hander Brad Brach pitched a scoreless inning in a nonsave situation in the Orioles' 15-7 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday night, he had thrown just 1 1/3 innings over the previous nine days. And while some of that has to do with save situations not being available as some lopsided losses have piled up, there's no question that the Orioles' interim closer has been preserved for most of the past month.
Brach carried a heavy workload in the first half of last season, and Orioles manager Buck Showalter has picked his spots choosing when to use late-inning relievers such as Brach and right-hander Mychal Givens. Often that's been with a lead late, and the Orioles haven't had many of those situations lately. And being without closer Zach Britton and setup man Darren O'Day – both of whom are on the disabled list – makes that effort more paramount.
"I'm comfortable where we are with him," Showalter said of Brach's usage before the reliever converted his first save opportunity since June 2 on Sunday with a perfect ninth inning. "And it's been a challenge with him and [Givens]. I just refuse to do it. I know what it's like without Zach and without Darren and think about it without them if you don't protect them, so it maybe it looks like I'm overprotective, but I know what life's like without them. We don't win that game yesterday [otherwise] with a lot of those situations that come up."
Showalter leaned heavily on Brach earlier in the season – especially in Britton's absence – as he pitched 19 innings in the team's first 33 games. Since then Brach had pitched just 10 1/3 innings over the team's past 34 games going into Sunday's series finale against the Cardinals.
Those numbers coincide with the team's recent slide. A blown save in the Orioles' 7-6 loss to the Washington Nationals on May 10 started a slide of 24 losses over the next 35 games, and there weren't many save opportunities along the way.
But Brach – who quickly retired the Cardinals in order in the ninth on Saturday – said the result is feeling fresher, something that can be more important down the stretch, especially with the return of Britton and O'Day looming.
"I think I definitely feel fresher now," Brach said. "I guess that's just part of it. Just kind of how the closing role goes around here. Just got to be ready to go four or five days in a row and when it's going cold, you just have to keep yourself ready and pitch whenever they call and tell you that you have to pitch. It's one of those things where I'm learning on the fly, but I think if anything it just might be better for the second half. I just think that last year, the workload was just a lot and it caught up to me at some point, and hopefully that doesn't happen to me this year."
Brach entered Sunday having pitched 29 1/3 innings over 30 appearances this season through 67 games, and while number of his appearances was exactly the same at the same point in the season last year, Brach had thrown 7 1/3 less innings than through 67 games last season.
"If you get to know a guy like we have over the years, every guy is different," Showalter said. "I've had some closers who didn't want to come in and get work. They didn't care if they had 10 days off. Some guys, two days off. Each one of them is different. Zach is different than Brad. I think with the April that we had and Brad had, innings are innings at the end of the year. I know where I'd like to have him end up. I know where his safety point is, and at some point it can [still] happen even when you try to protect them. You do fight that. How much is too much rest? But Brad has shown this year especially, that when he gets a little time, you get a return for it."
Showalter is correct on that account. Brach had a 4.41 ERA when pitching on one day of rest or less (16 1/3 IP, 8 ER), a number that improved to 0.69 when he receives two days or rest or more (1 ER in 13 IP).
When he goes a longer time between outings, Brach said, he will throw extra long toss and will add an additional 10 pitches or so to his warmup routine when he's preparing to enter a game. He said that gives him the work he needs and helps him maintain the feel for his pitches when he's not getting into games as often.
"I think last year in the second half, Buck kind of seemed to give me a breather there, too, so I kind of got used to doing the extra work that I needed to feel good when I got on the mound," Brach said. "Last year first half, I was sitting down [in the bullpen] yesterday thinking to myself, man I think I was close to like 40 innings last year at this point. It's just crazy to think about because it just seems like it was double what I have right now. I was rolling and not even thinking about it."
The results have been there for Brach. Saturday's outing was his ninth straight scoreless appearance dating to May 19, and he hadn't allowed a run over his past 8 1/3 innings. Over that span, he's allowed just one hit over the 27 batters he's faced, holding opponents to a .038 batting average. He has 10 strikeouts and just one walk over that stretch.
"But I don't think I really feel a huge difference," Brach said. "I just know I need to do more on the side as opposed to just being ready. So I just make sure I do what I need to be ready when the situation arises. I'm hoping here at some point there's going to be a lot of games that I'm pitching in, so you've got to be ready for that."