In a town that knows an out-of-nowhere bullpen success story when it sees one, there’s plenty to enjoy about the Orioles making a closer out of journeyman changeup artist César Valdez.
His emergence, though, has somewhat consumed another similar breakout story that three weeks into last season seemed like it would have staying power: Cole Sulser.
Like Valdez, Sulser was an off-the-radar closer candidate when he started getting the ball late in leading situations for manager Brandon Hyde in 2020.
He had five saves in the Orioles’ first 20 games, and like Valdez, his journey to Camden Yards was a long time coming.
Sulser made his major league debut at age 29 with the Tampa Bay Rays at the end of the 2019 season after 225 games in the minors, and despite making seven scoreless appearances that September in the big leagues, was put on waivers at the end of the regular season.
The Orioles scooped him up and made him one of their rare waiver claims they didn’t try to sneak off the roster, and he made the team out of summer camp to pitch at the back end of the bullpen.
Sulser pitched well early but fell off in the second half with uncharacteristic issues with his control, which according to MASN was owed to a foot injury suffered in his apartment.
This year, Sulser seems to have found his best form. He pitched two scoreless innings the first weekend of the season in Boston, but was optioned to the alternate site in Bowie to make room in the bullpen for Shawn Armstrong.
He came back to the major league bullpen last week and had two scoreless outings before he retired all six batters he faced in Friday’s 3-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics. Sulser retired the side in the seventh on seven pitches before striking out all three batters he faced in the eighth.
“I love that he was throwing that split-change to right-handers tonight,” Hyde said. “It’s something we’ve been talking about with the pitching guys, and you saw the hop to his fastball. He got his fastball to the upper part of the zone and above by guys and he was throwing that split to right-handers and getting some swings. He’s done a nice job.”
While the Orioles seem to have too many pitchers who warrant a major league roster spot than spots on the roster for said pitchers, it’s clearly better than the alternative. Friday’s game showed that with five shutout innings from Travis Lakins Sr., Dillon Tate, Sulser and Shawn Armstrong.
That leaves all of Valdez, Tanner Scott and Paul Fry available Saturday should the Orioles need to protect a lead Saturday, and Wade LeBlanc, Adam Plutko and Tyler Wells all available for multiple innings of what could be a bullpen game.
The group, though, has continued its 2020 improvement into this full season.
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“I’m really pleased with how our pen is pitching,” Hyde said. “They are keeping us in almost every single game.”