MILWAUKEE — Wednesday's activation of closer Zach Britton makes the Orioles bullpen whole again for the first time since early May. The team benefits from the return of all their high-leverage relievers but the fruits of three months trying to shuffle out parts to find the right ancillary pieces.
It will always come down to the starting pitching getting deep enough to set the bullpen up well — and even the players acknowledge that — but the Orioles' relief corps might be set up as well as it has been all year.
It starts at the back end with Britton and Brad Brach, who filled in admirably as closer over the past two months and might get one or two more save opportunities before Britton works toward his old role. Either way, these two at their best shorten a game considerably for the Orioles.
The next level of the bullpen — Darren O'Day and Mychal Givens — can become more any-inning weapons than they have been. With sometimes only two of O'Day, Givens and Brach available on a given night, the middle innings were a minefield for the Orioles as manager Buck Showalter held his top relievers in reserve for holding leads as opposed to bringing them into jams to clean up for a starter and stabilize a game.
Now Givens, O'Day and even Brach can be deployed in any number of roles, allowing Showalter to play matchups better and be more aggressive in when deploying that group.
Left-hander Donnie Hart will probably be in that late-inning mix, too, considering how much better his results have been since he returned on June 21. He has made four appearances in the past two weeks, allowing just five men to reach and no runs in 6 1/3 innings.
Though Hart could count as an up-and-down piece considering he has had two minor league stints at Triple-A Norfolk, he doesn't exactly fit in the final category. As the Orioles maneuvered to find innings in their bullpen to cover short starts, the two best options for the front half of the bullpen have proven to be left-hander Richard Bleier and right-hander Miguel Castro.
Bleier, a 30-year-old left-hander in his first extended major league look this season, is riding a cut fastball he only added last year to a 1.69 ERA in 23 appearances. He has allowed just one earned run of his own and one of 13 inherited runners to score in 18 appearances during this major league stint.
Castro is on the other side of the spectrum — tantalizing with his mid-90s fastball and hard slider from a loose arm. But the 22-year-old hasn't had much major league success before the Orioles acquired him. He has been able to go long and short outings, and with a scoreless eighth inning Tuesday, has a 3.14 ERA. It's still inconsistent, but for a live arm like Castro's, the Orioles might best benefit from letting him learn in the major league bullpen.
But take those seven together and it might be the best version of the bullpen the Orioles have put together all year. Now, it's just a matter of getting the ball to them in a good situation to use them.