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Orioles reliever Brad Brach's struggles come in two-strike approach

Orioles right-hander Brad Brach walked off the Angel Stadium mound Tuesday night as frustrated as he’s been this season, unable to record an out in a bottom of the ninth inning that ended with a 3-2 walk-off loss to the Los Angeles Angels.

The ninth inning didn’t snowball on Brach. Entering the frame with one out and the bases empty, he let all four hitters he faced reach base, ending with Justin Upton’s game-winning single. Brach was ahead in the count and had two strikes on the last three hitters he faced — including an 0-2 count to Upton — but couldn’t finish off any of the three.

Against Upton, Brach threw two sliders down that Upton swung through, then left a third up that landed in left field to prompt an Angels celebration at home plate.

“It’s just frustrating,” Brach said. “I’ve got to work harder at it. I’ve got to make sure if I’m throwing two-strike pitches, I have to make sure they’re not in the zone like that one especially. I’ve got to keep working, and like I said, the team deserves better because everyone else is picking up the [slack]. I’ve got to do better.”

Brach has struggled this season. He went into Wednesday with a 6.55 ERA, opponents were hitting .319 off him and his 5.7 walks per nine innings were the highest of his career. He had just 3.6 walks per nine innings in his first four years with the Orioles.

“You try to let him know the confidence you have in them, that you don’t have a short memory,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “He’ll get it. He cares. I know it bothers him. He’s pitched a lot of quality innings. I’m not going to throw him under the bus. He’s been a rock for us and he will be again.”

He’s allowed runs in three of his past four appearances, yielding six runs in 3 1/3 innings over that span, and his struggles lie in being unable to put hitters away, as was the case in Tuesday’s ninth inning.

“I know he’s frustrated because you don’t see him making those type of 0-2 mistakes very often,” Showalter said.

Before Upton’s at-bat, Brach was also ahead of Ian Kinsler and Mike Trout with 1-2 counts. Kinsler fouled off a pair of fastballs before singling to center to put runners at first and second — Brach’s first batter, Martín Maldonado singled on a 3-0 pitch. And Trout, who had been walked intentionally three times Tuesday, worked the count full before taking a borderline ball four near the letters to load the bases.

“Anytime you get ahead 1-2, especially on Kinsler and Trout — I’ve had pretty good success against Trout – [you’ve] just got to throw something near the zone and give myself a chance,” Brach said. “Don’t want the bases loaded there. I think those are the two at-bats. Got to make a better pitch when I get ahead.”

In Brach’s previous outing Sunday against the Detroit Tigers, all four of his outs came on strikeouts but he also allowed a pair two-strike, run-scoring hits.

Batters entered Wednesday hitting just .222 against Brach after 0-2 counts, but the longer he extends at-bats, hitters are seeing significantly more success, batting .308 after 1-2 counts and .300 following 2-2 counts.

“God, I just wish I could throw one more strike in the few times that I’ve allowed multiple runs,” Brach said before Tuesday’s game. “I had some guys two strikes. I need to stay aggressive and I haven’t been. … I just have to get better results.”

Showalter put Brach in a tie game in the ninth Tuesday, and the matchup favored the move because Trout and Upton were a combined 2-for-13 with seven strikeouts against Brach. But Brach, who had been the team’s interim closer in Zach Britton’s absence over the past two seasons, has also received infrequent work and fewer high-leverage appearances because the Orioles haven’t had many late-inning leads this year.

“One [key] is [getting] opportunities,” Showalter said. “He’s going to get him. It’s so tough for a reliever because [after] one or two [bad] outings, it takes a long time to climb out of it statistically in a lot of people’s minds. That’s why some guys who are pitching real well this time of year and the numbers don’t necessarily reflect it over a short period of time.”

Combine that with Brach’s recent struggles and his role is as unclear as ever. He hasn’t had a save since April 11. The team’s past two saves were converted by right-hander Darren O’Day. Since pitching three times in a four-day span ending April 8, Brach appeared in just six outings over a 23-day span going into Wednesday. Brach’s appearance Sunday against Detroit came in the sixth, which was unusually early in the game for him.

“I think you’ve just got to be ready to pitch,” Brach said before Tuesday’s game. “Whenever he calls my name or number, just be ready to go and probably just trying to get more innings and trying to get into a rhythm and try to put up a zero. Whenever he calls my name, just be ready.

“I know he’s trying to get me back out there just pitching a little better than I have been. Obviously, I want to do a better job than I have been doing. It’s just one of those things. Just be ready. Honestly, we haven’t had many leads so you have to be ready to go when you have one.”

eencina@baltsun.com

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