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Orioles’ bullpen among baseball’s best since Opening Day struggles

In Wednesday’s doubleheader in which each game was only seven innings, the Orioles’ bullpen was not taxed as much as it might normally have been in such a situation.

But given how Baltimore’s relievers have collectively performed since struggling on Opening Day, it’s likely they would’ve been able to handle however many extra frames were required. With three scoreless innings from right-hander Miguel Castro and left-hander Tanner Scott between the two games, the Orioles’ bullpen entered Thursday’s series finale with a 2.72 ERA in 39⅔ innings since Opening Day, the sixth-lowest relief ERA in baseball in that span.

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“Really impressed with our bullpen,” manager Brandon Hyde said before Thursday’s game. “I think that’s been a real bright spot for us. Our pitching, in general, has been a real bright spot for us. Some of the things that we talked about a lot this offseason and in spring training, the first one, they’re doing.”

Many times last season, when Baltimore had a league-worst 5.79 relief ERA, close games, such as the ones in recent days, escaped the Orioles in the late innings as Hyde tried to save his best relievers for situations in which they were leading.

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But with the exception of an Opening Day 13-2 loss in Boston that featured three relievers allowing seven earned runs over five innings, the Orioles’ bullpen has generally delivered when Hyde has called upon it.

It’s a group mostly made up of the same pitchers who struggled at various periods last year. Castro, who walked 41 batters in 73⅓ innings last year, has an 8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio through six scoreless outings in 2020 thanks to a mix of throwing harder and using his secondary pitches more often and effectively. Scott’s high-octane fastball helped produce a 12.6 K/9 in 2019, but he also walked more than six batters per nine innings. A perfect inning Wednesday was his fourth straight scoreless outing to start this year.

The most significant contributor from last year’s bullpen who’s no longer with the team is veteran left-hander Richard Bleier, traded to the Marlins last week. Hyde said the move created extra opportunities for Scott, fellow left-hander Paul Fry and right-hander Evan Phillips, who has held left-handed hitters to a lower average and slugging percentage in his career than righties.

“It’s sad to see Richard go, but this is part of the business,” Castro said through Felipe Alou Jr., the director of the Orioles Dominican Republic Academy. “So far, things have been good. You can see there’s a team effort, not only from the bullpen, but players going about their business every day, putting the ball in play and that kind of stuff. On the bullpen side, it’s been very competitive. Guys have been ready for when they get the ball.”

Since Opening Day, the Orioles’ bullpen ranks in the top half of baseball in K/9 and BB/9. Perhaps most significantly, Baltimore relievers have allowed the fourth-lowest amount of home runs per nine innings in the American League, producing the highest rate of ground balls in baseball and standing as the only bullpen that has induced more than twice as many grounders as fly balls in that span, according to Fangraphs.

Part of the credit for the improvement of the Orioles’ bullpen goes to its rotation. Despite the season’s quick start preventing Hyde from pushing Baltimore’s starters too deep into games, he credited their ability to get into the middle innings and avoid a need to burn through relievers.

“I’m not having to, at this point, overuse guys and putting guys in situations that I normally wouldn’t want to, which happened a lot last year, where I’d only go in with possibly three or four guys available out of the bullpen a night,” Hyde said. “Now, there’s more options, and the expanded roster is helping that, also. I’ve really been impressed with our pitching, and knock on wood it continues ‘cause I do like the stuff that’s down there.”

Around the horn

  • Major League Baseball announced that the Orioles’ game against the New York Yankees that was postponed as part of the schedule shuffling after the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak will be made up in a Sept. 4 doubleheader at Camden Yards.
  • After serving as the designated hitter in both games of Wednesday’s doubleheader, José Iglesias (left quadriceps soreness) was back in the lineup at shortstop for the first time since July 29.
  • Third baseman Rio Ruiz (right shoulder soreness) remained out of the Orioles’ lineup, but Hyde said the hope is that he will return Friday or Saturday.

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