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With key arms out, Orioles bullpen lacking reliable options as Brandon Hyde turns to inexperienced, struggling relievers

During his climb up the San Francisco Giants’ minor league ladder, right-handed pitcher Dusten Knight spent batting practice doing backflips in the outfield. He first became capable of the feat as a 9-year-old, softening his landing on wrestling pads. When former Oriole Will Clark, a special assistant in the Giants’ front office, first saw Knight flip while with Double-A Richmond in 2018, he suggested that the reliever do so if he ever got the chance to close out a game.

As Knight recalls, the opportunity came that night, a backflip providing an exclamation point to a Flying Squirrels victory. Each save since has preceded a flip, including the seven he earned this season while posting a 1.30 ERA for the Orioles’ Triple-A Norfolk affiliate. Knight, a 30-year-old who has allowed two runs in each of his first two major league outings, is a long way from a ninth-inning opportunity for Baltimore, but he said if the chance came, he would want to be sure to clear it with manager Brandon Hyde before breaking out his signature move.

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Hyde might do flips himself if Knight or another member of the bullpen could simply develop into another reliable option for him. Of the six relievers Hyde trusts most, half are on the injured list in right-handers Tyler Wells and Hunter Harvey and lefty Tanner Scott. In their absence, Hyde has been prompted to turn to options who are either struggling or inexperienced.

After ace John Means gutted through five innings Friday, Hyde needed a frame from an unexpected source before handing the game to the back-end trio of Cole Sulser, Paul Fry and Dillon Tate. With the bottom of the order due up, he tasked right-hander Conner Greene with holding a three-run lead. In his third major league appearance, Greene surrendered a game-tying home run to Nelson Cruz. He was designated for assignment Saturday.

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Of the Orioles’ 10 second-half wins, Fry, Tate, Sulser and Scott have each pitched in at least seven of them, with no other reliever appearing in more than three. That usage has faltered at times; Fry and Tate combined to allow a tiebreaking five-run inning Friday. But others have yet to prove themselves as viable options. Even before allowing seven runs over three innings Saturday, the bullpen had an American League-worst 5.86 ERA since the All-Star break as the Orioles have set a franchise record by allowing at least 10 runs for four straight games.

Orioles relief pitcher Paul Fry, center, is pulled by manager Brandon Hyde in the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday at Camden Yards.
Orioles relief pitcher Paul Fry, center, is pulled by manager Brandon Hyde in the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday at Camden Yards. (Will Newton/AP)

“I think everybody’s getting an opportunity to pitch, and it’s all they could really ask for,” Hyde said. “You pitch well, you’re gonna pitch when it’s close. All of our guys have had their moments of good streaks and bad streaks, and that’s really been the thing for three years here, just the inconsistencies of the guys that have been here, not being able to be consistent in the strike zone, be able to get big outs when it matters.

“Especially in this division, we have to pitch way better to even compete.”

César Valdez opened the season as the Orioles’ closer but soon struggled as the league adjusted to his changeup-heavy repertoire. He had been scored upon only once in his first six second-half outings before allowing two home runs, including a grand slam, Saturday. Adam Plutko was Hyde’s go-to option to handle inherited runners early, but he has an 8.35 ERA since an opener appearance in mid-May.

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That leaves Knight, Marcos Diplán and Isaac Mattson — who have combined for six major league outings — as Hyde’s only alternatives in the bullpen. Throughout the year, Baltimore has churned through several non-prospect debutants in their final bullpen spots, with Jay Flaa, Konner Wade and Mickey Jannis joining Knight as being 28 and older when getting their first major league shot with this season’s Orioles.

Orioles relief pitcher Mickey Jannis walks off the field after being pulled from the game by manager Brandon Hyde in the eighth inning against the Houston Astros on June 23 at Camden Yards.
Orioles relief pitcher Mickey Jannis walks off the field after being pulled from the game by manager Brandon Hyde in the eighth inning against the Houston Astros on June 23 at Camden Yards. (Will Newton/AP)

“It’s good to be in an organization that allows opportunity,” Knight said. “This is a great organization, you’ve got some great people, but the vibes in Norfolk, it’s develop and work hard, maybe you get a chance.”

In many cases, Hyde has been asked what he knows about the call-ups, responding with some form of not much. They’ve often been pitchers who were sparingly used in spring training or spent that time in minor league camp. Hyde acknowledged Saturday that those circumstances can be a challenge as he and his staff try to put together a pitching plan.

“It’s the third year of it,” he said with a laugh. “You’re gonna see guys pitch in spots that are going to be challenging at times and maybe they’re not ready for, maybe they are, just because we don’t have the typical veteran bullpen group. Guys are going to get opportunity here, and hopefully, they pitch well and stick.”

Some have taken steps toward that. Spenser Watkins, 28, made his sixth start for the Orioles on Saturday, though the latter three have not been as strong as the first half. Behind him, Knight made an impression on Hyde, who noted he was done in by some defensive lapses but “pitched with some guts.” In his major league debut Friday, Diplán retired all five batters he faced with three strikeouts. Given the bullpen the 24-year-old is a part of, Hyde said it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get some higher-leverage outings in the near future.

Orioles manager Brandon Hyde takes the ball from relief pitcher Tanner Scott during the ninth inning against the Detroit Tigers on July 31.
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde takes the ball from relief pitcher Tanner Scott during the ninth inning against the Detroit Tigers on July 31. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

“We don’t have a ton of options,” Hyde said.

That could change as soon as this week, when Wells (right wrist tendinitis) and Scott (left knee sprain) are set to return. The latter in particular will be helpful for Hyde, who for the time being has Fry as the only left-handed option in his bullpen. Harvey (right lat strain) should be back by the following week, Hyde said.

“It’ll be huge, there’s no doubt,” Hyde said. “We’ve been struggling out of the bullpen, there’s no doubt about it. Tyler was really the one that I relied on the most to throw strikes, so I used him in all different spots, then before he got hurt, he was kind of pitching toward the end of the game, and so it’ll be nice to get him back, and Tanner’s had some good moments this year, where he’s come in and punched out guys in big spots and he has an electric arm. I’d like to see Hunter Harvey get healthy and have him finish the season strong to see what we have there, as well.”

In the meantime, Knight and others will try to capitalize on the chance they’re getting in Baltimore, hoping to flip the bullpen’s recent results.

RAYS@ORIOLES

Sunday, 1:05 p.m.

TV: MASN2 Radio: 105.7 FM

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