BOSTON — Brandon Hyde can’t have felt much like smiling as he endured the ninth inning of Saturday’s 4-2 Orioles win over the Red Sox.
He managed one after it ended without incident when César Valdez, the 36-year-old reliever he’d said before the game he didn’t want to use but did anyway, stranded the batter he hit and the one he walked in a tense save situation.
“I lied a little bit,” Hyde joked. “César Valdez wanted the ball. He’s been around a little bit, so I gave it to him.”
The Orioles’ two wins Friday and Saturday have now both been closed out by Valdez, a fabulous story on a team that’s seemingly specializing in them these days. His usage, though, underscores a balance that perhaps Hyde and the Orioles’ front office didn’t think they’d have to strike when they assembled this 14-man pitching staff: When the challenge is having enough good pitching as opposed to simply having enough pitching, can they measure up?
Friday’s win, with seven sterling innings of shutout ball from John Means and then shutout relief innings from Tanner Scott and Valdez — two of the Orioles’ four established back-end relievers — was an easy one to map out.
With Scott unavailable and Matt Harvey not finishing the fifth inning Saturday, the formula for 27 outs changed. Newcomer Adam Plutko was brought in as the Orioles were “kind of seeing what we had,” Hyde said, and he gave more than the manager expected with 2 1/3 innings of one-hit ball.
Dillon Tate, who could easily catapult himself into a late-inning leverage role after an impressive 2020, needed just 11 pitches for a scoreless eighth inning before Valdez’s struggle of a ninth inning.
Shawn Armstrong, who is on paternity leave as he and his wife, Sarah, welcomed son Declan on Wednesday, will pitch late in games after his own strong 2020 once he’s back on the roster. Paul Fry and Cole Sulser will be in that mix as well.
But it was telling that after trusting Fry and Sulser in big spots last season, Hyde instead doubled back to Valdez on Saturday. Considering how badly the bullpen let him down at times in 2019 when the Orioles were trying to close rare wins that summer, there’s no begrudging Hyde for going for it on afternoons like Saturday. Every win counts, and the Orioles already have two of them banked.
There was a sense, though, in putting together the roster that the Orioles were more concerned with covering a season’s worth of innings and hoarding depth for that purpose than knowing how.
It’s not a given that they’ll be protecting leads every game, but if they are, the bullpen’s best arms may tire quickly. Plutko and Wade LeBlanc will likely be used to bridge multiple-inning gaps the way the former was deployed Saturday, and Rule 5 pitchers Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells will probably not be asked to pitch in strenuous situations just yet.
That could leave Hyde forced to make decisions like Saturday’s again in using a leverage pitcher like Valdez on days he doesn’t want to — and even though he doesn’t throw hard, Valdez’s early issues finding the strike zone Saturday showed he isn’t going to be an everyday panacea for the bullpen.
As long as he’s not using four and five relievers each night, Hyde will have options at his disposal with a pitching staff this large. In an ideal world, a healthy Sulser, a Fry who leaves his difficult spring training behind, and an ascendant Tate mean there are more candidates to lock down leads than there are spots to use them.
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Doubling down on Valdez, even if the man known as “El Jefe” asked for the ball, could show that faith in the next tier of pitchers isn’t there yet.