New York — Mychal Givens concedes he’s had some bumps along the way this season, pitching through a variety of roles during the Orioles’ losing season while watching a bullpen that’s been one of the club’s constant strengths dismantled in front of him as the losses piled up.
He’s become the bullpen’s de facto leader because he’s the most experienced reliever — though he’s still not arbitration-eligible until next season — among a group full of new faces. Inside the Orioles clubhouse, the locker that belonged to Jim Johnson and then Darren O’Day is now occupied by Givens.
While Givens, 28, has had his struggles, he’s pitching his best in September as the season winds down, his role as the team’s new closer seemingly set. During the weekend’s series at Yankee Stadium, he recorded two more dominant outings to extend an impressive stretch.
After recording two scoreless innings in a tie game Saturday against the Yankees — retiring all six batters he faced in a 20-pitch outing — Givens returned Sunday for a ninth-inning save opportunity, retiring the Yankees in order to seal a 6-3 win for his ninth save of the season.
“It’s good to see him finishing strong,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “He seems a lot more understanding of pitching that late in the game and what it’s about. I think he has a better feel for it.”
Over his past nine outings dating to Sept. 4, Givens has allowed just one hit and one earned run over 11 1/3 innings. He’s converted all four save opportunities he’s had over that stretch — including two outings that were more than an inning.
Givens is holding opponents to a .029 batting average over that stretch.
“I really don’t feel like anything’s changed from what I’ve done in the past,” Givens said. “It’s just building the confidence. We understand that this is a really mental game and you have to be, not just physically, but mentally strong. I’m just trying to be myself and have fun.”
Givens’ recent success has come without posting the high strikeout figures he’s had throughout his career. He averages more than a strikeout per inning, but over his past nine outings, he has just seven strikeouts over 11 1/3 innings. Givens said he’s noticed an aggressiveness in the way hitters approach him that he’s taken advantage of, and the result is being effective while allowing opponents to put balls in play.
“The key, if you watch it, it’s the command of the fastball,” Showalter said. “That’s always been it with Mike. I’ve talked to Mike a lot, and I’ve told him, ‘At some point in your life, you’re not going to throw 95, 96, 97 [mph], and you’re ability to command a fastball is what’s going to allow you to survive.’ He knows that and he works hard at it.”
In September, opponents are hitting just .037 against Givens’ fastball, and even though he’s using his slider less often, he’s still getting an effective amount of swings on the pitch. His fastball is inducing a 40 percent ground-ball rate, which is more in line with his career numbers rather than this year, when he’s only induced a 30 percent ground-ball rate on the pitch.
“It just goes back to the confidence, and people ask whether it’s different [closing] and yeah, it’s a little different, but I’ve treated it the same as far as trying to get outs,” Givens said. “I just treat it as the same thing I’ve been doing in the past. I’m trying to get three outs and still stay attacking hitters. I’m trying to do stuff to help teach the younger guys more about being a reliever.”
He has some moments this season he’s learned from the hard way. On May 21 in Chicago, Givens retired all six White Sox batters he faced in a scoreless two-inning, 28-pitch outing. He returned the next day and entered the game with one on and one out in the seventh inning and a two-run lead. He retired the first two hitters he faced to end the inning, but allowed four of five batters to reach base to start the eighth and was charged with three runs, the blown save and the loss.
That sent Givens into a bit of a tailspin that went through the trade deadline. Beginning with that game in Chicago, Givens posted a 6.83 ERA over a 28-outing stretch to Aug. 1, allowing a .327 opponents batting average over that stretch.
Givens has a 2.18 ERA in 19 outings since, holding opponents to a .101 batting average.
“The last few months, I think I’ve been able to build confidence,” Givens said. “Earlier in the year, I didn’t think I was as confident. For this team, a lot of things didn’t go our way, but we’ve been playing really well. But things didn’t go our way and I think we lost some confidence. It wasn’t a great season. Having a good little outing here and then working off that outing has been great.”