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Orioles manager Brandon Hyde’s decision to pitch to Randal Grichuk underscores confidence in Cole Sulser

In choosing to let Cole Sulser pitch to Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk in Friday night’s 10th inning, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde again displayed the confidence he has in his unexpected closer.

Since Hyde deployed Sulser in Baltimore’s first save situation of 2020, he has continued to use the rookie right-hander exclusively in late-inning situations. Sulser, an offseason waiver claim who had made seven scoreless appearances for the Tampa Bay Rays last September, has yet to pitch earlier than the eighth inning and has been asked to pitch across multiple innings in six of his 11 outings with the Orioles.

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That includes Friday, when he retired all three he faced in a tie game in the ninth and the first two he faced with a one-run lead in the 10th, keeping the potential tying run that automatically began the inning at second base right there. Then came Grichuk, continuing his tear against Baltimore by taking an elevated Sulser slider in a 1-0 count and hitting it out to center field to give the Orioles their ninth loss in 11 games.

Hyde, who often ran into trouble from using Mychal Givens across multiple innings in 2019, said before Saturday’s game that it’s generally not his preference to have his closer pitch in more than one inning. But with Hyde saying Saturday that Givens, Paul Fry and Shawn Armstrong — who landed on the injured list Saturday with lower back inflammation — were unavailable, Hyde allowed Sulser to continue into the 10th.

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Grichuk’s success against the Orioles is both recent and prolonged. Since he made his debut in April 2014, he’s homered 17 times in 34 games against the Orioles, tied with New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge for the fourth most against Baltimore in that time. Last week, he sent four balls over the fence in a three-game series at Camden Yards, driving in 11. All nine of his home runs in 2020 have come in the past two weeks.

A career .247/.296/.489 entering play Saturday, Grichuk’s slashline against the Orioles is .351/.387/.851.

“I’ve seen Randal Grichuk a lot,” Hyde said. “I was in Chicago. He was in St. Louis. Saw him year after year there. This is obviously the best I’ve ever seen him. He’s swinging the bat very, very well against us.”

And yet, Hyde allowed Sulser to pitch to Grichuk. Hyde rationalized the decision by pointing to the hitter on deck, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the former top prospect who had already homered and doubled to extend his hitting streak to 10 games while posting a 1.104 OPS in that span.

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“Listen, it’s not that I didn’t think about it,” Hyde said. “But then I also thought about Vlad Guerrero Jr. ... Pick your poison. Do I want to put the winning run on first base with a guy that’s a .240 career hitter and face Guerrero, or do I let the guy face Sulser, who’s just got five outs in a row and throwing the ball great?”

The latter part is what reverberates about the decision. Despite Grichuk’s blazing streak, Hyde trusted a 30-year-old former 25th-round pick who pitched in Triple-A for parts of four straight seasons before finally reaching the majors last year to get the last out.

The at-bat ended in what was only the second home run Sulser has allowed, with Judge’s three-run shot handing the Orioles a loss in Sulser’s Camden Yards debut July 30. He’s struggled with walks, with 10 issued in 14 2/3 innings, but he’s also held lefties to a 1-for-29 line this season, including 0-for-5 Friday.

Orioles bullpen coach Darren Holmes noted that Sulser’s next-day demeanor Saturday was much improved compared to how he handled his first blown save against New York.

“The first one that he blew, he struggled, so me and [pitching coach Doug] Brocail brought him in and we talked to him,” Holmes said. “He closed some in minor leagues, and we just talked about, ’You’ve got to have a short memory. It’s going to happen. This is the big leagues, and you’ve got to keep grinding on every single day,’ and he’s done that.

“We haven’t lost any confidence in him. We haven’t lost any faith in him.”

In saying after the game that he “liked the matchup” and had no intent of having Sulser pitch around Grichuk, it’s possible Hyde was simply covering for his player making a mistake. He seemingly did it later in his postgame news conference, not mentioning an apparent missed sign by Pat Valaika that caused Ryan Mountcastle to get caught stealing in the ninth when discussing the team’s baserunning issues in the game.

Still, it’s not tradition to willingly put the potential winning run on the bases. Sulser’s first pitch to Grichuk was a high-and-away fastball, and the 1-0 pitch seemed to catch far more of the plate than intended.

“Cole just left a slider that kind of backed up right in the middle part of the plate, so if he executes the slider down and away, if he executes a pitch there, we’re not having this conversation,” Hyde said Saturday. “[Grichuk said] has hurt us, there’s no doubt about it, but I think Suls would tell you that was just a poor pitch in a situation.

Regardless of how it ended, Hyde liked the matchup, speaking to his continued confidence in his closer. He knows it doesn’t change the result.

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