The Orioles' postseason fate will come down to the final week of the regular season, and this team, despite its second-half struggles, will try not to steer too far away from what put them in this position.
When it comes to pitchers attacking hitters, there are few secrets. Hitters have seen the Orioles' arms several times by now, and the emphasis on advance scouting leaves no stone unturned. The Orioles will go into their final week aware that the division rivals they're facing — the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees — will try to know them better than they do.
"You've got to execute more so this time of the year than maybe earlier in the season, when maybe hitters aren't as locked in and have a whole year under their belt," closer Zach Britton said. "It's different. … It's not developing a new pitch this point in the season. It's knowing guys throughout the lineup who have the ability to beat you and not letting them beat you."
Yes, pitchers are always making adjustments, but when it comes down to the final weeks of the season, the emphasis is on executing pitches, which is no different from the work done beginning the first days of spring training.
"They've seen everything you throw and you've thrown everything against them, and basically you can sit there and say how the at bats going to work out," Orioles reliever Brad Brach said. "So it comes down to executing pitches. That's the biggest thing. Obviously, having all three pitches working I throw helps a lot, but it comes down to executing them and putting them where I need to be."
With that in mind, we take a look at four pitches the Orioles will need to get them to the postseason and to make a charge in the playoffs.
Kevin Gausman's breaking ball
Gausman has grown before the public's eyes since the All-Star break, and the main reason is he has learned how to mix his pitches efficiently. As good as Gausman's mid-90s fastball is, he has learned that major league hitters will put 97 mph pitches in the stands if he leans on his fastball too much. But his splitter could be his best pitch, and he has gained the confidence to throw it in any count.
"I think I'm mixing my pitches more than I ever have now," Gausman said. "… In the second half, I'm sure all my splits with off-speeds and fastballs are a little different than in the first half."
Overall, Gausman has relied on his breaking ball more than ever, developing it as a pitch that he can throw both early and late in the count.
"I hate to categorize it," Gausman said. "Everybody says slider and curveball. They're all breaking balls. It's that sense in knowing 0-0, I can kind of flip a slower one in for a strike and catch a guy off-guard and then with two strikes be a little more aggressive with it."
Gausman said developing his breaking ball has allowed him to keep opposing hitters off-balance. Over his past six starts, Gausman has used his breaking ball slightly more, and posted a 1.83 ERA over that span. More important, though, is the confidence he has gained by seeing success with the pitch.
"I think the book is out on me," Gausman said. "I think guys know they're going to get hard fastballs and I'm going to throw them up and I'm going to throw them in and I'm going to throw splitters down in the zone. So if you're able to rewrite the book every time they go into the dugout, to [make them say], 'Oh, was that a splitter? No, it was a slider.' And guys say, 'Oh [man], he has a slider now? He's able to throw that for a strike?' I think that changes the way they think the next time they go out."
Brad Brach's changeup
Brach still remembers the at-bat that helped him evolve into the All-Star reliever he became this season. In the fifth inning of Game 2 of the 2014 American League Championship Series, Brach had two on with two outs in a one-run game when he threw three straight changeups to Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, a left-handed hitter, to strike him out swinging on three pitches.
Brach said it was the first time he threw three consecutive changeups, and the success he saw in that at-bat alone propelled him to the confidence that he could utilize the pitch, especially to left-handed hitters.
"Actually, all three of them were up, but they kind of faded and he swung and missed at all three," Brach said. "… I thought to myself, 'Man I can probably do that more often.' I can still remember [telling myself], 'If I can throw three in a row like that in the playoffs to Alex Gordon, maybe this pitch can work for me.' That confidence came from that one at-bat."
Brach's changeup was a primary weapon in the first half of this season, as his ability to defend himself against left-handed hitters helped him become a late-inning option. Brach stepped in admirably when setup man Darren O'Day went on the disabled list and held opposing hitters to a .155 average in the first half while posting a 0.91 ERA.
"I think a couple years ago, when I got comfortable throwing it, [the changeup] was the biggest X-factor for me," Brach said. "Definitely getting back to that, throwing it in any count is huge."
Brach struggled with the feel for his changeup in the second half, and lefties started having success against it, hitting .333 on the pitch. But in his six outings entering Saturday, Brach hasn't allowed a hit on the changeup against a lefty.
"I think that I stopped thinking about stuff," he said. "That was the biggest thing. I just kind of started throwing it again and not worrying what it looks like, just stop thinking about it, just getting the grip and throwing it. I think it's been a lot better and I'm just throwing it with a lot more conviction. … I think it was just more of a mental block that I had with myself and I just had to battle that and just started throwing it again."
Ubaldo Jimenez's sinker
When Ubaldo Jimenez's two-seam sinking fastball is working, he can not only expand the plate with its late movement, but that allows him to use his other pitches, which include a splitter, curveball and slider.
Finding a feel for his sinker is the main reason Jimenez has been able to turn his season around. It wasn't that long ago that Jimenez had been booed off the field and booted from the starting rotation. But over his last six starts, Jimenez has a 2.85 ERA and has held hitters to a .186 batting average.
"Most nights, that's the main thing: commanding the sinker. That way, you can throw all your breaking balls when you need it," Jimenez said. "It's got to feel good in your hand. That's the thing. Once you have good command of the fastball, you know where everything else is supposed to be and supposed to feel. If feels good to throw breaking balls in any count when you've done that."
As he has seen success, Jimenez has actually had to use the sinker less, but has been able to play his other pitches off it more. Over his past six starts, Jimenez has held opponents to a .237 average on his sinker, and it has allowed him to see similar success with his slider (.059), splitter (.216) and curveball (.214).
When Jimenez has struggled, sometimes he found his sinker breaking too much and winding up out of the zone — he was averaging 5.6 walks per nine innings in mid-August. But a mechanical tweak allowed Jimenez to find his command.
"It is important to have everything. Hopefully, you have your A-game and you're able to bring everything to the table because that's the most important thing when you're playing meaningful games," Jimenez said. "If you get all your pitches working and you have good command of the fastball, you have a better chance to get people out and have a better chance to give your team a chance to win."
Zach Britton's slider
Few relievers rely on one pitch more than Britton does his sinker. He throws it nearly 92 percent of the time, a number that has incrementally increased since Britton became the Orioles closer in May 2014.
Britton's sinker is a pitch no one else throws. Its heavy sink and late life don't allow many hitters to square it up. There's no question it works because Britton is enjoying one of the best seasons for any closer, converting all 45 of his save opportunities entering Saturday while leading all major league relievers with a 0.57 ERA.
Baltimore Orioles Insider
While the sinker has been successful by itself, Britton has tinkered with using his slider — his premier pitch when he was a starter — more often.
Though his appearances have been down this month, Britton has sprinkled more sliders into his arsenal in September than any other month than May.
One only needs to look at the Orioles' series in Boston earlier this month, when Britton converted back-to-back saves by striking out Xander Bogaerts on a slider one night, then ended the game striking out Hanley Ramirez the next night on the same pitch.
"I threw a bunch in Detroit [earlier in the month], so just having a feel for the situation and what I have going on that night," Britton said. "I think the hardest thing, and I think you learn it as you get older, is that you don't have to try to trick people. It's not like I've got to go out there and do something different now because they've seen me eight times, so I should throw my breaking ball.
"I just have to execute my fastball. But yeah, it's another pitch I can throw. With Bogaerts, it's a good situation. We saw he was swinging. It was something I did to him before and knowing when to do it."