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Orioles

Orioles bullpen's left-handed-hitter problem persists

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Mychal Givens left, reacts as New York Yankees' Chase Headley, right, runs the bases after hitting a two-run home run during the eighth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, July 19, 2016, in New York.

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Orioles bullpen has struggled all season to get left-handed hitters out while bridging the middle innings to the late-inning lockdown arms, and the problem has followed the club into August.

The July 29 signing of reliever Logan Ondrusek, a right-hander with a history of success against left-handed batters, was supposed to help, but he has struggled in that role early on. Add in All-Star reliever Brad Brach's sudden missteps against lefties and the Orioles are now having difficulty handing the game over to setup man Darren O'Day and closer Zach Britton.

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"It's been a challenge for us," manager Buck Showalter said, "but we've been able to overcome it for most of the season."

The team's week in the San Francisco Bay Area is bad timing for such woes. The Orioles are facing an Oakland Athletics team that stacks left-handers at the top of its batting order against right-handed starters and will play a San Francisco Giants team that frequently starts five lefties and one switch-hitter against right-handers, including four in the top five in the batting order.

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It's a problem that cropped up when left-hander Brian Matusz, who had served in the situational lefty role for much of the past four seasons, struggled upon his return from the disabled list in late April. When the team traded Matusz on May23, it left a void the Orioles are still trying to fill.

The problem was never more glaring than in the Orioles' 3-2 loss to the A's on Monday night at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. With the Orioles trailing by a run, manager Buck Showalter turned to Ondrusek against a lefty-heavy part of the lineup.

Ondrusek issued a leadoff walk to No.9 batter Ryon Healy, a right-hander, then allowed a two-out RBI single to left-handed-hitting Stephen Vogt that scored Healy. That run, which gave Oakland a 3-1 lead, proved to be pivotal after Manny Machado's homer in the eighth inning made it a one-run game.

Ondrusek has held left-handed batters to a .239 average over his major league career, a trend that he continued the past two seasons in Japan. Executive vice president Dan Duquette, who was searching for a left-handed reliever before the nonwaiver trade deadline, said signing Ondrusek to a major league deal after he left Japan was a potential solution to the Orioles' situational lefty relief problems.

But after Vogt's hit, left-handed hitters were 3-for-7 against Ondrusek this season. Meanwhile, he retired nine of the 11 right-handers he has faced — but that's not why he was signed.

Brach has often been Showalter's solution against left-handers this season, and Brach's success against lefties has been instrumental in his emergence as a lockdown reliever. But over his past six appearances, lefties are 7-for-16 with two walks. Before that, lefties were hitting just .233 against Brach this season.

Brach hasn't pitched as often or as well recently. Part of that is a reflection of how dominant Brach was in the first half — and how much he was used — but it's quite noticeable. Brach entered Tuesday night having pitched just four times since July 25 and had a 5.06 ERA over his past six outings.

Right-hander Mychal Givens struggled mightily against left-handed hitters earlier in the season, and despite his improvement, they entered Tuesday hitting .367 off him. The Orioles used Chaz Roe against lefties during Givens' struggles, but Roe was designated for assignment to make room for Ondrusek and he was claimed by the Atlanta Braves.

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"Honestly, I think it's a matter of someone stepping up and getting over that mental hump because everyone keeps talking about it, harping on it," Brach said. "But at the end of the day, it's about getting hitters out, whether it's lefty or righty. They're major league hitters. You've got to get them out. That's really the biggest thing, trying to execute our pitches better and not let that righty-lefty thing affect us."

O'Day and Britton are exceptional against left-handed batters, but getting to them has been a struggle.

Showalter has talked often about how the lineups in the American League East aren't as left-handed as they used to be, but that's not the case in the National League. The Orioles will see that this weekend in San Francisco against the Giants.

"They can run six or seven out there, and will," Showalter said.

Rosters will expand next month, and left-handed relievers such as Donnie Hart and Ashur Tolliver could rejoin the Orioles after experiencing some success in limited situational lefty opportunities. But the Orioles first have to get through August, all while using a seven-man bullpen that includes two long relievers in Ubaldo Jimenez and Vance Worley.

"There are some things you can do Sept. 1, but obviously there are a lot of games between now and then," Showalter said. "You try to look at teams we're going to play. What it does is it allows teams to stack left-handed hitters back to back, which doesn't create as good a situation for guys like Darren."

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Brach said the Orioles bullpen has the ability to get lefties out in the middle innings, but to him, it comes down to making pitches no matter what side of the plate a hitter is batting from.

"You've got to get hitters out, especially in the seventh, eighth, ninth innings," Brach said. "Regardless of who we're facing, we have to get them out. I don't think we necessarily need a lefty specialist, but I think we just need to execute our pitches better against lefties."

eencina@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EddieInTheYard


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