The first month of the season saw the Orioles bullpen establish itself as a strength for the club yet again, but a five-run night for the relief corps that ended with closer Zach Britton spraining his left ankle throws that into flux.
Reliever Darren O’Day, the veteran stalwart of the bullpen who returned this year even when he could have had a chance to go somewhere and close elsewhere in free agency, said the team can likely weather any storm without him.
“I think Zach’s the best in the game, so it would be a tough period without him,” O’Day said. “We’ve got guys that have done the job before. So, yeah, it was a bad night, but if you look at the body of work we’ve put together, we have a lot of confidence. So we’ll figure something out.”
What will be interesting, at least in the short term, is who the Orioles choose to replace Britton in any extended absence. O’Day’s four-year, $31 million contract he signed this year in free agency pays him like a closer, but the last time the Orioles needed to shuffle the bullpen to find a closer, they didn’t move O’Day out of his top setup spot either.
The 33-year-old All-Star entered Saturday without having allowed a run, but allowed three runs in the eighth inning to raise his ERA to 2.79. That’s not enough to keep him out of the job, but the one example of this the Orioles have with this bullpen crop indicates O’Day’s role might be left unchanged.
That was in 2014, when Tommy Hunter wasn’t cutting it as the closer and instead it was Britton, who was on the roster as a reliever because he was out of minor league options, who moved into that spot. O’Day, who had been lights out for two years for the Orioles up to that point, stayed as the high-leverage, seventh- or eighth-inning arm so as not to disturb the rest of the bullpen.
It helped that there was an option like Britton, whose mid-90s sinker was on its way to being considered by hitters the best pitch in the game, to close instead of him.
This year, the options if they bypassed O’Day appear to be Brad Brach and Mychal Givens. They’ve seemingly alternated as manager Buck Showalter’s first call out of the bullpen when the starter gets into tight spots, and both have performed well.
Brach allowed a home run in Friday’s win, but it was just the second run he was charged with all season. In 14 1/3 innings this year, he has allowed five hits and walked five with 15 strikeouts and a 1.26 ERA. Left-handed hitters are batting .130 off him, and right-handers are hitting just .087.
Brach also has the benefit of having closed his entire minor league career before the San Diego Padres called him up in 2011. The 30-year-old reliever closed out 119 of the 129 save opportunities he had in the minors.
Givens allowed a run on a hit and a walk in Saturday’s loss, but struck out two batters to give him 21 in 12 innings this season. Givens, however, has been killed by left-handed batters this season, allowing eight hits for a .533 average and a 3.75 WHIP. Righties, however, are batting .182 against him.
Others in the bullpen include Vance Worley, T.J. McFarland, Dylan Bundy and Brian Matusz. Matusz is the situational left-hander, while Worley and McFarland are the designated long relievers.
That only leaves Bundy, who finds himself in a similar situation to Britton in 2014 in that he needed to stick in the bullpen out of spring training having never worked as a reliever before running out of minor league options.
Bundy, however, is still building up his innings and learning the role after missing parts of three seasons with elbow and shoulder injuries. Showalter has said multiple times that Bundy could be stretched out to the point that he could start later this season, so moving him to the closer role would run counter to that.
Even though he hasn’t found a way to miss bats much this season — he has just two strikeouts in nine innings this year despite a 2.00 ERA — Bundy’s mentality is such that he’d be fit for the role. Whether he gets it seems to be a long shot, if it’s on the table at all.